Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama original hardcover graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Alison Bechdel
Editor: Deanne Urmy
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Price: $22 US
Considering Alison Bechdel’s previous graphic novel was the critically acclaimed Fun Home, which is about her father, and this new project focuses on her mother, comparisons are unavoidable. As such, I won’t even try to avoid them, even though the two books are significantly different in tone and approach. Given the strength of Fun Home and the apparent similarity in subject matter, I really looked forward to delving into Are You My Mother?. Now, I thoroughly enjoyed Fun Home. When considering the experience of reading Bechdel’s new graphic novel, “enjoyment” isn’t a term that leaps to mind, but don’t misunderstand me: it’s a worthy creative endeavor. Are You My Mother? is more of a challenge. It demands a great deal from the reader, and it sticks with the reader. While I wasn’t as engrossed in Bechdel’s exploration of motherhood and her own insecurities, I found the book made me think. I thought about it. A lot. And not just when I was reading it. At work. Lying awake in bed. As I drove. It’s as much an exploration of the written works of thinkers and authors she enjoys as it is as examination of her relationship with her mother, and while I found the many text excerpts halted the flow of the narrative, I appreciated the book for how thought-provoking it is.
Alison Bechdel finds herself at odds with her mother over the cartoonist’s decision to write and illustrate a book about her father (which would come to be Fun Home). Her mother frets over the family’s dirty laundry — including her late husband’s suicide and hidden homosexuality — being aired in public. The process prompts the author to consider not only her history in therapy, but the theories and thoughts of specific feminist writers and pioneers in the field of psychiatry. As Bechdel crafts her book, she evaluates her own life and her relationship with her mother… as well as with lovers and surrogate mother figures as well.
At first glance, Bechdel’s cartooning style is simple in nature, but in reality, she takes a surprisingly realistic approach. Her eye for anatomy is sharp, and it’s most apparent when in scenes incorporating nudity. Bechdel’s characters’ facial features are simpler in composition, but they’re incredibly expressive, given how the artist employs just a few lines to convey emotion and reaction. Perhaps what’s most impressive is how strong a visual connection Bechdel creates between her and her mother. The nose is the giveaway. I also appreciated how she often has the two characters facing each other while seated (even when they’re not in the same state). The approach is mirrored in her therapy sessions, as it makes the maternal role the counsellors take on all the more apparent. The biggest thing this book has in common with Fun Home is the rich level of detail and sense of place we see in the Bechdel family home in flashbacks. The furniture, the drapes… everything is incredibly vivid.
Are You My Mother? isn’t an easy read. Bechdel goes into incredible detail about the lives and philosophies of long-dead figures whose works in which she’s engrossed. Winnicott is a particularly obscure figure about whom Bechdel dwells, even obsesses. I know next to nothing about psychiatry or therapy. While I feel they’re of great value, they haven’t played a role in my life in any way, either practically or academically. The same holds true for many of the writers considered in this narrative. Bechdel’s explanation of and fascination with the lives of Donald Winnicott, Adrienne Rich, Virginia Woolf and others wasn’t at all infectious. Her inclusion of so many excerpts from their writings disinterested me and made my progress through the book slow and somewhat arduous at times. The one such reference that resonated for me was from Dr. Seuss’ The Sleep Book, which my wife and I have read innumerable times to our toddler son (at least until he shredded a number of pages while unsupervised).
Contrasting the matter-of-fact approach to the narrative are Bechdel’s observations of how elements from her life and her mother’s intertwine with the histories of the writers and healers in which she’s so interested. The parallels and synchronicity of it all bring a subtle degree of mysticism and or even spirituality to the mix.
Bechdel says up front she’s conflicted about writing about her mother, that her relationship with her mother is an elusive, mysterious thing to her, and that’s reflected in the writing. The script jumps all over the place. There’s little in the way of linear storytelling to be found in this book. It makes Are You My Mother? much more of a challenge to read, but it also mirrors the chaos and confusion in the author’s dreams, thoughts and feelings about the relationship and her life in general. Bechdel wisely brings a much more hopeful, healing tone to the writing in the closing chapter of the book, balancing the otherwise darker and depressed focus of the meat of the book.
If you look above in the opening paragraph of the review, I noted Fun Home is about Bechdel’s father while Are You My Mother? “focuses” on her other. But this new book isn’t about Bechdel’s mother specifically. It’s about the mothers (biological, surrogate and imagined) she’s had in her life — or wishes she had. Bechdel’s self-aware nature seems like something of a curse, but her discussion of her own feelings, insecurities and moments of turmoil allow the reader to recognize himself or herself in the author’s otherwise unique experiences. 7/10
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