Not Oprah’s Book Club: How Should a Person Be?

I generally make it a policy to read any book that people say is being misunderstood by smart, serious men, so Sheila Heti’s much-discussed How Should a Person Be? has been on my list for a while.

The book, which is described as “a novel from life” and is based on recorded conversations and emails between Heti and her actual friends, is about a character named Sheila leaving her marriage, having some intense sex, trying to finish a play commissioned by a feminist theater, and searching relentlessly trying to answer the most lofty of philosophical questions: “How should a person be?”

Above all, though, it’s about Sheila becoming friends with Margaux, an artist who, like Sheila, had “never had a woman.” At first, Sheila is hesitant:

It was men I wanted to grow close to and be influenced by. It was easy. There was a way in which I felt they would always come home. The good ones had a natural regard for me, and there was always an attempt to treat me nicely. Even if they could be neglectful or forgetful, they were rarely cruel, and the they weren’t necessarily so reliable, they were trustworthy in a deeper sense: I rarely worried that a man’s heart would turn against me—at least not before mine turned against him—and certainly not for no reason at all. There would always be a veil over their eyes when they looked at me, which was a kind of protection.

With a woman, who was too much the same, it never felt that way. So much had to be earned—but no earnings built up! Trust had to be won from zero at every encounter. That’s the reason you always see women being so effusive with each other—crying shrilly upon recognizing each other on the street. Women always have to confirm with each other, even after so many years: We are still all right. But in the exaggeration of their effusiveness, you know that things are not all right between them, and that they never will be. A woman can’t find rest or take up home in the heart of another woman—not permanently. It’s just not a safe place to land. I knew the heart of a woman could be a landing ground for a man, but for a woman to try to land in another woman’s heart? That would be like landing on something wobbly, without form, like trying to stand tall in Jell-O.

While (spoiler alert!) Sheila does come to “take up home in the heart of a woman,” that doesn’t mean she finds it completely safe. As Anna Holmes wrote recently in the New Yorker, one of the revolutionary things about How Should a Person Be?—and the TV show Girls—is that they both depict not just the “cozy embraces” but also the “emotional brutality” of female friendships.

Indeed, when Sheila fears that she’s damaged her friendship with Margaux beyond repair, she describes the pain she feels as physical and all-consuming: “There was nothing in me that did not mourn.” But it is through this perilous journey to learn “how a woman might affect another,” (namely, a whole effing lot) that she comes to understand, for the first time, the “true singularity” of someone else.

Such a serious and complex exploration of the power of female friendship is—incredibly—still a rarity, and I’m excited to see Heti’s book creating such a buzz. I’ll also probably be quoting some of her clever nuggets of truth about being a lady in this world—“He was just another man who wanted to teach me something”—daily from now on.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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