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A review a day: The Impostor’s Daughter

Let’s check out a book that’s been getting some good press out there in the real world, shall we?

The Impostor’s Daughter: A True Memoir is by Laurie Sandell, published by Little, Brown and Company, and costs $24.99. It features pull quotes from four different hoity-toity authors, you know, the kind who write real books. But it’s just a comic book, right? RIGHT?

The description of this book got me very excited. Sandell is telling the story of her father, who told her stories about his life when she was growing up, stories full of adventure, excitement, danger, and, well, lies. As she gets older, she begins to research her father’s life more and discovers that pretty much everything he told her was false. And so she begins to try to come to terms with that. This book is that story.

Yes, it’s a coming-of-age story, and so I went in a bit apprehensive, because coming-of-age stories are tricky to pull off, and ultimately, Sandell doesn’t quite accomplish it very well. I’ve written about my distaste for coming-of-age stories before, and this book highlights the reasons why I don’t love them as much as some people. Sandell writes incredibly honestly about her life (well, it seems she does – this entire book could be fiction, for all I know), which is appreciated, but because of that, she comes off as someone who remains immature well into her 30s. According to the book, she’s two days older than I am, which helped me relate to her and to her cultural surroundings. But I kept wanting to reach into the book and smack her, because what she needed to do seemed so obvious to me, and it was frustrating that she didn’t realize it.

I’ll explain. Sandell begins the story very well, with stories of her relationship with her father and how he told her outrageous stories but also encouraged her to create and experiment with many things (like drawing, not anything creepy – she’s ten years old or so). It’s the story of a man who wants to be larger than life and because we know that he’s lying, it creates a nice tension between the young Laurie and the reader, because we don’t believe him for a second. Despite being an intriguing character, we can already sense trouble for Laurie – not because her father is lying to her, but because he’s spoiling her rotten. She doesn’t present herself as a spoiled brat, but she still has a sense of being better than everyone – mainly because of her connection to her father, who definitely believes he’s better than everyone (late in the book, he states this baldly to her, revealing him to be a petulant child, so it’s not surprising she becomes one). Therefore, even though she’s a kid, we already find ourselves disliking her, and although we’re on her side during her battle with her father, we can’t help but think they were made for each other.

The book shifts when she’s 21 and finds out her father took out a credit card in her name. This begins her ongoing battle with her father, a battle that no one else wants to get involved in. This is where the book becomes more complex and interesting, but also more frustrating. Laurie begins to see the cracks in her father’s veneer, and later, when she interviews him for a magazine article and starts fact-checking his stories, his lies fall apart and Laurie feels angry and betrayed. What she can’t understand is why the rest of her family doesn’t seem to care. Her mother obviously has known that something is off about her father for years, but doesn’t want Laurie to expose the truth. Her sisters seem to be angry, but then move on with their lives quickly. Laurie becomes obsessed with discovering the truth about her father, but no one in her family wants to share her quest. She can’t figure out why.

As the book moves into more about Laurie and her screwed-up life and less about her relationship with her father (he’s always present in the book, but more as an absent figure, as she goes years without seeing him), the narrative becomes weaker. Laurie begins and on-again, off-again, long-distance relationship with a guy she meets on the Internet, and this becomes the focus of the comic for a time. It’s a frustrating relationship for Laurie and the reader, for Laurie because she can never commit to it totally even though the guy, Ben, seems like a good dude, and for the reader because it never feels like a real romance, mainly because Laurie makes sure it doesn’t. Again, that’s deliberate on the part of the author, but it also gets back to her immaturity – the reader laughs when she claims she “loves” him but isn’t “in love” with him, because that’s such a traditionally guy copout, and what the hell does it even mean anyway? It’s this kind of behavior that lessens our sympathy for Laurie and makes her much less interesting, because she’s become a cliché, abusing sleeping pills, drinking too much wine, and worshipping celebrities (she works for a magazine interviewing famous people). Laurie the character doesn’t have to be sympathetic, but she becomes boring, as if the lack of an antagonist – her father – for a good chunk of the book (and she never gives up her quest to find out the truth about him, but, as I mentioned, she doesn’t have a lot of interaction with him) shows her true personality, which doesn’t exist.

Maybe that’s the point. This is a quest by Laurie to find out who she is, without interference from her father, who has shaped so much of her life. I get that, but it still seems like it takes her far too long to grow up. This gets back to my attitude toward “coming-of-age” stories – I always think to myself, “Just grow up already!” As I mentioned, if the book is to be believed, I’m two days younger than Sandell, and I grew up a long time ago (says the person who reads superhero comics). In the book, Laurie seems like she spends a lot of time worrying about crap she can’t control. It’s interesting that after their adolescence, she barely mentions her sisters, and when she does, it’s to complain that they’re not on her crusade with her. When she does mention them, it’s as if she’s scornful of them because they have moved on and made their own lives. Maybe it’s because their father didn’t spoil them as he did Laurie, so they simply went out and made a life without being trapped by their childhood infatuations. It doesn’t reflect well on Laurie.

Of course, none of this matters, because it’s only my personal take on the way Laurie grows up. I’m sure many people will relate to her as she navigates a strange relationship, abuses substances, and eventually ends up in rehab. The point should be whether she does a good job telling this story, and she doesn’t. She falls into the trap that many coming-of-age comics fall into, and that is simply listing events. Unlike, say, Fun Home, to compare this (unfairly, I know) to another memoir in which the father has a secret, Sandell doesn’t do much with trying to make the narrative “fictional,” by which I mean using narrative devices to create a “story.” She relies on the force of her father’s personality and her conflict with that to carry us through, and it’s not enough. The book relies too heavily on a recitation of events, and while Sandell’s life is a bit more interesting than your average life, it’s still somewhat mundane, and Sandell does nothing to make it feel like a thriller, which it often seems like it should be. Again, this might be my problem, but even her father’s fabrications aren’t enough to make a simple retelling of events compelling. This begins with her early life and basically follows a simple time line, with a drudging feel of “and then this happened, and then this happened” as it moves along. Sandell never does anything to make the main characters – “Laurie,” Ben, her father, and her mother – interesting, hoping they’ll be interesting because of what’s happening externally. But they’re not.

I haven’t said anything about the art. It’s adequate. The best art in the book is Sandell’s childhood drawings, which she reproduces in the book. They have a real sense of the absurd and metaphorical, something the main story does not.

I was very disappointed by The Impostor’s Daughter, because there’s a tremendous story in here, one that occasionally peeks through before being overwhelmed by a story about a spoiled girl who just needs to grow up. That she does eventually grow up doesn’t excuse the many events in her life that drive us nuts because of her immaturity. I’m not sorry that I bought it, because a lot of it is fairly interesting, but Sandell never gets below the surface of any of her characters, including, to a degree, herself, and that means the book is ultimately unfulfilling. When your journey to maturation is spurred on by Ashley Judd, as it is in the comic, I find it a bit shallow. That could just be me, though.

Tomorrow at noon: Who doesn’t love noir?

8 Comments

[...] of review that takes issue with me as a person–but today, I got one of those. You can read it here. The reviewer felt I came off as “someone who remains immature well into her [...]

Greg, I’m with you on the acres of the semi-autobiographical indy books by people who haven’t even hit middle age that are perceived in many groups as the high point of fine comic book art at the moment. The books usually wind up making me think about how unpleasant of person the writer/artist is as they progress to a moment of epiphany for the climax of the book that’s never as clever or interesting as the creator thinks it is.

Frankly I think it is just you. Loved it. Think it is an amazing, honest, well written memoir. Looking forward to her next book.

That’s cool, mandy. Mine is just an opinion!

I’m with Mandy. It also seems a bit odd that you would review a coming of age story when you state upfront your distaste for them. Seems like you’re going into it with a predetermined idea of what you’re going to get. Also, and how do I put this politely…your insistence that Ms. Sandell isn’t as mature as you are, coupled with your need to point out the two day age disparity between you both, is not only juvenile itself (as well as being inconsequential) but also illuminates — and yes, we all know this is your “opinion,” — your shallow understanding of basic human psychology. Sure, I agree that celebrity worship is shallow, but it’s here that you so obviously missed the point. Sandell herself draws the parallel between her larger than life father and her prediliction toward celebrities. It makes perfect sense that someone whose entire childhood is based on appearance rather than substance would struggle mightily with the concept of self-worth. Sandell’s childhood was filled with one message: you’re nothing without something. Now, with that type of upbringing, how in the world would you expect for her to know the right thing to do as an adult? It takes time to see that the path you’re was actually paved by someone else. It takes time to see that your beliefs aren’t actually your beliefs, but the ones you were raised on. We are raised to believe the stories our parents tell us about ourselves and the world. Apparently, you were lucky and got a good mom and pop set. Most of us didn’t. We’re the ones who have to learn how to recognize the unhealthiness of the narratives we were raised to believe. This, Mr. Burgas, not only takes time, but it takes maturity. Why am I so vehemently defending this book against your review? Because I was raised by a narcissist and I know the agony of trying to separate out people who are good for you and people who are not. I have spent nearly my entire adult life having to learn the very basic rules you clearly learned as a child. Not all of us are so lucky. It takes one mistake after another to gain insight. Sandell seems to make these mistakes, but you seem a bit lost to the insight.

Angie: Just because I’m not the biggest fan of memoirs doesn’t mean I don’t want to read good ones. I try very hard to judge a book based on its own merits and not based on what the genre is. I didn’t think this was done very well, but that has nothing to do with the genre.

I think what people object to in my review is that I compare Sandell unfavorably to myself. Yes, that was probably a bit too juvenile of me, but what’s done is done. My biggest objection to the book is that I don’t think it’s written terribly well. I mentioned in the review that it reads likes a recitation of events that happened – Sandell doesn’t do anything to make it interesting, relying on the “facts” to drive the narrative. If you relate to her story, then that doesn’t matter to you, but that doesn’t make it a well-written book. You relate to it because you can understand the things she’s going through because you went through similar things, not because Sandell does anything to make you understand them. I freely admit that I didn’t have a bad childhood – believe me, that gets me trouble whenever I read a memoir about someone who did. But that means it’s Sandell’s job, as a writer, to make me understand WHY she is so screwed up. I didn’t get that from this book, and I wanted to. I wanted to understand her psychology better, because you’re right – I was lucky. I’ve experienced tragedy in my life, but not when I was a kid, so I often don’t get why, when people grow up, they can’t make adjustments in their life. But I won’t apologize for that. A memoirist who publishes has a bigger duty than just therapy – they have a duty to make happy idiots like me to understand their pain. I simply don’t think Sandell does that.

Greg, I accept that you thought Sandell’s book wasn’t well written, and due that, she failed to show you why she is so screwed up. Because you think her book was poorly written, you didn’t quite get the message – gotcha. Ironically, this is the problem with your review. If your intention was to point out where Sandell failed in her narrative by making critical assessments, then you failed. Yes, you “mentioned” your irritation about the recitation of events, but that’s about all you did. You didn’t review the book, you reviewed your response to Laurie Sandell. To that end, the review was about you, Mr. Burgas. You didn’t give us a critical analysis of structure, story, or tone. What you did was give a critical analysis of Sandell. And that, is where I take issue. A memoir is a subjective retelling by the author of their life. It’s not fiction. Sandell is not a “character.” As such, a critically minded reviewer has a responsibility to assess the work, not the author. You are guilty of the very thing you blame Sandell for doing. Perhaps next time you’ll rely less on your opinion and more on your brain.

Fair enough, Angie. You didn’t think I wrote a good review. That’s fine. I disagree that Sandell isn’t a “character” – of course she is. But that’s just me. I’m still not entirely sure why everyone who doesn’t like this review because I take cheap shots at the author – which I’m still not convinced I do, and I would argue that Sandell herself agrees with me – feels the need to take cheap shots at me. You make a nice argument until your last sentence. What’s the point of writing that?

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