She Has No Head! – Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?
Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama. Alison Bechdel (writer/artist). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Hardcover. 304 Pages. $22.00.
Though on the surface I prefer Fun Home after one reading of Are You My Mother?, I suspect Are You My Mother? is a book I will return to many times over the years and always glean something new from, both as daughter, wannabe academic, writer, and depending on how my life turns out, possibly as mother, because Bechdel’s book is complicated and layered in a way that few graphic novels are and it affected me powerfully both in what I understood and what I know that I cannot yet understand. I feel that though I read the book carefully, and adored it, at the age of 35 I can only process some parts of it.
Perhaps I am not ready for the rest.
At 45 I suspect I will see it in a whole new light. And at 55 it may become something else entirely.. It feels like the kind of work that will stay with me my whole life, revealing new layers as I am equipped to understand them.
What I take from it today feels important, and also sad. But not in a depressing way, rather in a revealing way. I was similarly moved when I first read Fun Home, but unlike Fun Home, Are You My Mother? feels deeper and ongoing, which makes sense since Bechdel’s mother is still alive and thus their relationship continues to evolve. Where Fun Home was funnier and perhaps more immediately tragic, Are You My Mother? is incredibly complicated as Bechdel literally picks her way through understanding her relationship with her mother, both as an exercise in creation, an attempt to heal herself, and a way to move forward.
The art, much like Fun Home, is sublime. Bechdel has chosen a smart and subtle palette of black, white, and greys, with only red as a spot color. The red presents itself in many variations, frequently pink, to a deep wine color. And it’s funny how powerful the color is as an identifier for the idea of women, of mothers and daughters. From the associations we have with pink and little girls, to the association of red as the ultimate in change for women – first as they become women, and then in relation to sex and reproduction, and then eventually, as it disappears, of another evolution, the “final” evolution if you will for a woman. Bechdel uses the color lightly though. There’s nothing obvious or awkward about it, it simply is. Which is of course a statement in and of itself.
I had bizarre dreams every night the weekend that I read Are You My Mother? and while it’s not uncommon for me to incorporate things I’ve absorbed in the day (books, comics, music, film, television) into my dreams, Bechdel’s book asserted itself with a force that I can only describe as unrelenting.
I hope five years from now or perhaps ten to re-read again and see what it brings me then. I wish I could have provided a better review for today though, but short of summarizing what actually goes on in the book, I can only tell you that you must read it, and that you may well be surprised what you find. I find what Bechdel has done here almost too personal and intimate for a critical or measured review. Everyone will take to this book differently. For me it was sad, but felt achingly honest and real. The words I am most left with when I glance at a copy of the book on my shelf are stunning and important. But I suspect mileage will vary incredibly with this work. People who dislike it today may feel differently in a few years, those who love it today I suspect will only grow to love it more. Is that a review? I don’t know, but it’s what I found I had to say and that’s really all I can do.
Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama is available everywhere – bookstores, comic book stores, and online now.
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