{comic} french milk

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frenchmilkFrench Milk by Lucy Knisley

Touchstone Book (Simon & Schuster), 2008 tradepaper edition. 194 pages.

When I saw French Milk on the comic book shelves at the library I remember I had meant to read it at some point. I recalled there being some raving, and there it was on the cover: “Wonderful…Read it and you will not be disappointed.” I’m sorry to say Whitney Matheson of USA Today, but I was disappointed. I am not a big fan of Travel Narratives—and that university course on the subject didn’t help, dragging down the Memoir with it. Understanding my bias I was determined to have an open mind. I was determined to find it “Charming” (Publisher’s Weekly). Craig Thompson’s Carnet de Voyage it was not.

Through delightful drawings, photographs, and musings, twenty-three-year-old Lucy Knisley documents a six-week trip she and her mother took to Paris when each was facing a milestone birthday. With a quirky flat in the fifth arrondissement as their home base, they set out to explore all the city has to offer, watching fireworks over the Eiffel Tower on New Year’s Eve, visiting Oscar Wilde’s grave, loafing at cafes, and, of course, drinking delicious French milk. What results is not only a sweet and savory journey through the City of Light but a moving, personal look at a mother-daughter relationship.—jacket copy.

The drawings can be delightful, very accessible and amusing. The lettering is sometimes rough, but she is sometimes doing her illustrated journal on a train so…Knisley is nothing if not authentic—something we are to look for in our travel narrators. Lucy mentions a previous backpacking adventure across Europe and David Sedaris sprinkled lessons on the French language, so she is prepared/experienced that way. She is finishing up her studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is applying to art programs for Cartoon Studies, and has friends whom I recognized right off the bat (the very talented Hope Larson who is married to a very talented Bryan Lee O’Malley). The opening pages tell us Lucy is liked, loved, found attractive, tends toward open-mindedness, adventurous, and is acknowledge by other artists and thus artistic.french milk page11_0

Lucy starts us out back home, where she has made a home as a young adult, in Chicago. She has great friends, and a serious boyfriend. She says her good-byes for the holiday and flies home to her mom and step-dad’s to stay a few days for Christmas after which she and mom head to Paris.

“The flat is quirky,” and the two explore Paris and a few places beyond, recording shopping expeditions for food, clothes, books (to include comic books) and the kind of randomness a good flea market could provide; food and dining experiences; various important museums, grave sites, and other landmarks; the lines; people watching; film and television watching; her period; missing her friends; missing her lover; having a cold, being cold, crampy, and/or feeling depressed, etc.  It makes sense for an artist, especially one who would love a career in comics to keep this kind of journal as a record, a keepsake. I’m not entirely sure why anyone thought it would be all that interesting on a grander scale than friends and family.

french milk lucyknisley09

Sure I found myself saying, yeah, that was a great place! and no kidding about getting tired of seeing naked lady paintings! But I found that the self-absorption didn’t translate into anything more, and Lucy was so typical as to be dull, recording but not saying really much of anything. French Milk’s contents are notes from which one must extrapolate greater sense of the person and her experiences.  Hemingway is referenced and lauded for his ability to transport a person to his table, while a worthy hero from whom to model, it is a risky standard in reference. The most successful read of French Milk will require the reader to bring some things to the table themselves. A black and white cartoon line drawing of a crepe monsieur doesn’t make my mouth water, but the memory of having one does.  It really relies a great deal on connecting with the reader on some value of similarity. Having spent some time in Paris or having been a student of it culturally (pop or otherwise) helps.

french milk lucyknisley02

I was really relying on “a moving, personal look at a mother-daughter relationship” to extend greater meaning to the holiday slide show where the adjectives were often lacking in both text and illustration. Am I to read something into the companionable existence of mother and daughter? Mom was an early-riser and daughter struggled to prolong sleep in their shared bed while mom yammered on and on. Lucy talks to her mom about relationship frustrations, and there is a depressing exchange on “financial responsibilities” and ?. Lucy provided more personal and direct musings on friends and lover than how she related to her mother, or how she really thought of her mother as a person. I couldn’t even read the “I wish I were more like my mother” except in the “I’m fat” and “mom’s thin” observations. French Milk really shouldn’t be as trite as it does in review.

Perhaps a better context was assumed—which is a very damaging flaw for French Milk. I was supposed to know what Lucy was talking about when she went back home (which I sort of actually got), but Lucy’s privilege makes her seem more whiney than understood. I think I was supposed to be more sympathetic being a girl and all, but I wasn’t—sorry. And here comes much of the success of the novel: finding a connection with Lucy and/or her circumstances. Her angst about getting into the right programs and trying to make a living as an artist? I get that. And that was where I drew most of the weight of the experience. I’m not a foodies so a quarter of the novel was lost to me. The making friends, a life away from your mother’s hearth: yes, okay. The “mother-daughter” quarter of the story? not so much. The half I didn’t manage, I felt frustrated by, especially thinking that this was where the title of the narrative could have been much more clever than choosing it because ‘Lucy just loved the whole milk in France and couldn’t get enough of it’ explanation. The half I could connect with intellectually still lacked any emotional resonance. I really missed opportunities at humor that I am sure was there. I think there was supposed to be melancholy (the sort of ambiance I love), but I was too bored to care. I hate that I was just bored, turning the pages in search of some redemptive moment.

If you love the idea of eating sumptuous food in Europe, like travel narratives of all kinds, are in your early-late twenties, like chick-lit, are familiar with art, artists, authors and their work—from Wilde (whom Lucy adores) or Palahniuk (an author she buys) and it makes you feel special, if you like all kinds of comics, can identify whatever encoded languages or images that proved a “moving, personal look at” Lucy and her mom’s relationship, find value in recorded shifts in moods—maybe French Milk will be a better fit for you.

I think I will look to try something else by Ms. Knisley.

{images belong to Lucy Knisley}

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Barbara says:

    I absolutely loathed this comic. My reasons for disliking the book if written in their entirety would be longer than the book. I did not find the drawings delightful and found a few that puzzled me as to what they were meant to represent. Her drawings had the childish quality of “floating” on the page which grew old quickly. I had the feeling that the artist feels that if she were actually to learn to draw better she would forfeit her adorableness, I think she should go ahead and find out.

    Something that really grated on my nerves in this book was the author’s need to tell us on two occasions that she”got” her period, as she so charmingly states it. Who cares? The average age of menarche in the United States is 12.5. Wouldn’t you think ten years on the fascination would have worn off for Lucy and her need to trumpet her bloody achievement would finally have ended?

    Lucy would describe expensive camel leather bags she purchased, “Frenchy” style shirts bought for her boyfriend, her shopping for frilly “Frenchy” bras and other lingerie, all of the expensive meals she and her Mother consumed, and then start crying over her financial worries. Her parents gave her this trip to Paris for her birthday and it’s quite clear Lucy has never wanted for anything as she let us know this was her second European trip. Her sense of entitlement was so repulsive and her lack of awareness of the rest of the world reminded me of Ann Romney.

    At an exhibit of modern art Lucy moans that it “is just what I’d expect from the idiots at my school”. What a charming way of speaking of her fellow pupils at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I’d love to hear their opinions of Lucy’s work.

    I must mention her horrible drawing of Captain Haddock from the Tintin books, she made him look like Fidel Castro.

    I could go on, and on, but I won’t. I hope someday Lucy matures, learns to consider other people, and understands her bodily functions are not of interest to anyone but her. And I hope whoever at Touchstone/Simon and Schuster publishing put this book into the marketplace thinks long and hard before publishing any other of Ms. Knisley’s efforts.

thoughts? would love to hear them...

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