One of my goals is to read more nonfiction, and it just so happens that I am reading some nonfiction right now. Or wait, is a graphic novel memoir classified as nonfiction? Hm. Well, at any rate, it is quite a bit different from the YA novels I typically read. After recently finishing up Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, I decided to also pick up her memoir Are You My Mother?
Let’s start with Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic first. Even if you haven’t read Fun Home yet, you’ve probably heard about it. It caused some controversy when college students refused to read it because it went against their beliefs. Despite this, the book went on to achieve critical success and was even listed as one of the best books of 2006 by The New York Times. Later on, Fun Home became a Broadway show. The musical was nominated for twelve Tony awards, and won five of them, including the Tony for Best Musical.
But what you may have missed with all of this news was that the book itself is actually really interesting. I consider my life to be rather average and a bit boring. I thought my life of growing up in a small town with parents who have been married for over 30 years now was typical and normal. But perhaps that life is more abnormal than I realized. Bechdel reveals a lot of private details about her family life, and wow, what a life. Bechdel’s father, Bruce, works as a funeral director and high school English teacher while her mother is an actress. Their house is an old Victorian, which her father is constantly working on. In college, Bechdel comes out as lesbian. She writes a letter to her parents to tell them the news. Whatever reaction she thought she would get flies out the window when her mother tells her that her father is gay. While this may have been something for a father and daughter to bond over, Bechdel’s father unexpectedly passes away after getting hit by a car. Throughout the book, Bechdel reflects on her childhood, seeing the details about her father she had missed the first time around. Bechdel also shares memories from her journals about her own obsessive-compulsion disorder which becomes so bad that her mother transcribes her entries for a while. Along the way, Bechdel also uses well-known works of literature to tie in the artistic and academic natures of both herself and her parents.
While the book took me some time to get into, I eventually became hooked. It was exactly what I wanted a graphic novel to be: smart, fresh, and interesting. It was insightful and clever. While the themes and ideas were not easy to deal with, the line drawings and efficient use of text made the concepts relatable and accessible. The author didn’t seem to hold anything back. I was fascinated by the Bechdel family. I was also fascinated by the idea of memorializing your life in comic book form. I wish I could do that.
After Fun Home, I was pleased to find another book by Bechdel on my local library’s shelf: Are You My Mother? As the title suggests, this book focuses on Bechdel’s mother and the relationship the mother and daughter share. But while I found Fun Home fascinating and unexpectedly good, I struggled to get through Are You My Mother? Instead of classic works of literature, Bechdel uses dreams, her own therapy sessions, and psychoanalysis to link together themes in this book. It was very heavy-handed, and I’m sad to say, boring. I just kept waiting for Bechdel to come out and say what she wanted to say about her mother, and she just felt like she was holding back the entire time. She’d already revealed so many personal details in the first book that I couldn’t quite understand what she was so afraid about with this book. I was really hoping to know more about how her mother felt about being stuck in a small town with a house full of kids when she had originally dreamed of becoming an actress. I wanted to know why she married and stayed with a man who was gay. I wanted to know if she liked being a mother and what her relationships were like with her other kids. Bechdel just beats herself up the whole book, stumbling around and filling up the pages with psychoanalysis rather than content the reader wanted.
What I hope you’ll take away from this (ridiculously long) post is that Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is definitely worth the read. Unless you read a lot of graphic novels, it will be unlike anything you’ve ever read. Bechdel’s family is so unique that you will forget you’re reading a memoir. The work is different. And that’s a good thing.