An Unconventional New Novel


"A work of art is a confession." – Albert Camus

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti is a meditation on art and life.  Sheila (our protagonist shares the author’s name) is a 20-something playwright, living in Toronto.  She is trying to finish a commission, but she has writer’s block and seems to spend more time thinking about how she should live her life and how she should be, than actually writing.  The novel is unconventional—partly stream of conscious, partly linear—and it is written in five acts, like a play.  Though mostly prose, some chapters are written in dialogue.  Subtitled “A Novel from Life,” this book is quasi-autobiographical, based partly on Heti’s personal experiences and on conversations with her friends.  I found myself constantly thinking, “I wonder if that really happened,” and at times, “I HOPE that’s not true!”

Sheila struggles to discover who she is as a playwright, as an artist and as a woman.  Even though we don’t necessarily get answers to all the big questions she poses about creativity, life, relationships and friendships, we do get a glimpse at her attempt to answer them in a meaningful way.  Are we bound by the way other people view us?  What makes a painting (or a person) beautiful, and conversely, ugly?  Why does she want to write her play, anyway?  As we see Sheila answering the questions, we also get a little closer to answering them for ourselves. 

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