Last week I wrote a review of Alison Bechdel’s first graphic memoir, Fun Home. Here, I’m following it up with a review of her 2nd graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? which was just released in May 2012. Are You My Mother?, subtitled “A Comic Drama”, functions as almost a sequel to Fun Home, dealing as it does with Bechdel’s adult life and her relationship with her mother, both before and after her father’s death.
Right up front I should say that I was looking forward to this book for a long time. I drove halfway across Toronto to buy it the day it came out, and read it in one sitting on the plane to Australia that very night. However, I was extremely disappointed: it simply did not stand up to the expectations I had after loving Fun Home so much, and I think I know why.
Where Fun Home used classic works of modernist literature as its principle intertexts, weaving its story around Ulysses and Swann’s Way and The Importance of Being Earnest, Are You My Mother? uses major works of psychology by the likes of Donald Winnicott, Alice Miller, Carl Jung, and Sigmund Freud. Following this theme, each of the seven chapters begins with Bechdel retelling and psychoanalyzing a dream she has had.
Possibly for someone interested in psychology this would be fascinating, but I enjoyed her literary allusion in Fun Home much more. Not that Are You My Mother? is wholly without literary allusions—Bechdel does use a lot of Virginia Woolf, and also relies quite heavily on some of her favourite children’s books, such as Dr. Seuss’ Sleep Book and of course, P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?
The reason for the psychological intertext is because Bechdel is writing not only about her mother, but also about her other maternal figures – her therapists, two of whom figure very prominently in her book. With them, she works to untangle the complex web of emotions she has carried with her since childhood, concerning her father’s death and hidden sexuality, but also her mother’s coldness and distance, and the resultant trouble she has had in her own romantic attachments.
Are You My Mother? is written with the same recursive, circular structure as Fun Home, and has the same artistic style, but this time red shading instead of blue. Bechdel’s artwork is as compelling as ever, but I found her second novel to be much less tightly structured. Her direction seems to waver, at times she seems unsure as to where the story is going or what the ultimate conclusion will be. This is probably a result of the metafictional way she has chosen to tell this story, talking in the book a lot about how hard it has been to write the book, but it makes for confusing reading for the audience.
While I would still highly recommend this book for Bechdel’s originality and intelligence, I would only rate it a 3 out of 5.