Genre: Graphic Memoir
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was a pop culture and literary phenomenon. Now, a second thrilling tale of filial sleuthery, this time about her mother: voracious reader, music lover, passionate amateur actor. Also a woman, unhappily married to a closeted gay man, whose artistic aspirations simmered under the surface of Bechdel’s childhood . . . and who stopped touching or kissing her daughter good night, forever, when she was seven. Poignantly, hilariously, Bechdel embarks on a quest for answers concerning the mother-daughter gulf. It’s a richly layered search that leads readers from the fascinating life and work of the iconic twentieth-century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, to one explosively illuminating Dr. Seuss illustration, to Bechdel’s own (serially monogamous) adult love life. And, finally, back to Mother—to a truce, fragile and real-time, that will move and astonish all adult children of gifted mothers.
I love Alison Bechdel.
A little bit of background: I’m 23 years old, and I work at a nonprofit lesbian publishing company with mostly older lesbians. In our magazine, we publish Bechdel’s classic lesbian-centric comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For.” (Recommended reading for lesbians, feminists, women, and humans.) So I feel like a bit of an anomaly in that I straddle the line between the younger queer generation and the older, lesbian-feminist generation. (WOMYN POWER!) At the very least, I know both worlds fairly well (although, of course, I was not alive during the 70s or 80s — unless you count the last 2.5 months of ’89).
So, first of all, if you haven’t read Bechdel’s first graphic novel, Fun Home, you should do so immediately, because it’s outstandingly awesome. I flew through Fun Home last summer, and I was very excited to read Are You My Mother?, expecting it to focus on her mother in the same way that Fun Home focused on her father.
It was not what I expected. Rather than telling a clean, engaging, linear narrative, Are You My Mother? was fragmented and verbose (not a word often used to describe graphic novels). Bechdel really takes an intellectual dive into her relationship with her mother, even quoting at length from various psychoanalysis texts and explaining psychological theories on motherhood and attachment. Therapy and psychology — not Bechdel’s mother — often seem to be the central topics in this novel.
Bechdel has written a very honest memoir — so honest, in fact, that it sometimes feels as though we are reading a personal therapeutic project rather than a novel meant for popular consumption. Not only does she describe her therapy sessions in detail, but she also expounds upon her relationships with various women and her own unfaithful behavior, attempting to draw connections between her maternal and romantic relationships.
Although at times this novel was a bit dry, I found it to be a very interesting read. At the end I had this strange desire to both be psychoanalyzed and to do some psychoanalyzing. (My girlfriend was a victim of this, probably to her dismay.) Plus, I just love reading about people’s lives. Although I believe the novel could have used a bit more narrative and a bit less exposition, it was still an ambitious and successful literary endeavor. Bechdel and her mother come out scarred but with a better understanding of one another at the end, which is heartening.
As always, Bechdel’s illustrations are fantastic and serve to enhance the story, although I did find the lengthy textual quotations a bit tiring to read. I love the monochromatic quality of her graphic novels — teal for Fun Home, maroon for Are You My Mother?. She does a lot with only a single color at her disposal.