It’s one of those books you read that makes you say “I could write that.” Not because it’s easy — it’s not. It took her six years. It just that it fills you with such energy that before you’ve put it down you’ve reached for your own pen.
This same woman—who writes about getting fired from a beauty salon and drinking for eight hours straight—is also the author of four books, and has written for n+1, The Guardian, and The New York Times. And these intense differences between personal and professional life aren’t irreconcilable, paradoxical, or abnormal—they’re just not talked about, or, really, separate at all.
[Heti] exposes and explores the complicated landscape of female affection without eroticizing it. She brings light to the kind of jealousy, possessiveness, and mutual obsession and adoration between her and her best friend in a way that is true and, yes, beautiful. It calls into question the way female friendship can be misrepresented in media portrayals. Sheila and Margaux’s codependency is seen as an important aspect of the women’s development as people and artists and thinkers and makers. They love each other in a deep way that, although it is not sexual, is every bit as essential, if not more, than their relationships with their lovers.
“Maybe there’s just a “type” of person who’s primed to be spun around by Sheila Heti’s novel How Should a Person Be?—someone for whom that question already seems open and vexed and not a distraction from simply being. I appear to be very much of that type.” - Nitsuh Abebe, music critic at New York Magazine
How Should a Person Be? is chosen as one of the New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2012!
The novel’s biggest virtue is Sheila’s messy complexity that Ms Heti never stops short of revelling in. … This is that rare novel: an airport read, a post-coital read, a beach read, a binge read. While trying hard not to sound like Virginia Woolf, I would wager that this is how a novel should be.
The book reads as a sort of middle finger at truth and authenticity, two words that I hear a lot more lately, especially by younger people. These are also words I don’t particularly like or trust. And yet this book comes closer to what I think we imagine those words mean more than most books.
Sheila Heti, a Canadian of Hungarian-Jewish descent, whose most recent novel, How Should a Person Be?, includes, more than once, the decidedly anti-Rothian dismissal “just another man who wants to teach me something,” does not seem a likely candidate for inheriting Mr. Roth’s mantle. But her book is filled, even unconsciously, with Rothian gestures.
There is no centre to Sheila, but she manages to build herself out of other people, their odds and ends, out of conversations, traditions, relationships, out of the roles she plays, out of what she reads, and hears, and does. Heti does something beautiful and impressive in showing how not only characters in books are like this, but real people, who always stand on the borders of fiction.
If one wants to find development, arc, movement, and thus evidence of deliberation on the part of the author, one must look past the plot and notice, instead, the progression of ideas, the way in which Sheila quite meticulously examines different ways of being– the practical life, the creative life, the life of service, the religious life, the virtual life, and the increasing confidence with which she begins to answer her own question.