Saturday was Free Comic Day! In celebration, here is a review of French Milk, a graphic novel by Lucy Knisley
Simon & Schuster, 2007
By REBECCA, May 7, 2012
Lucy is really the only character that we get to know. She’s a bit melancholy and extremely invested in food, drink, art, and feelings.
When you’re a graphic artist and you spend a month in Paris, what do you do? You keep a graphic journal and publish it when you’re done, of course!
Lucy and her mom have rented an apartment in Paris for the month of January, 2007, to celebrate her mom’s 50th birthday and Lucy’s 22nd. They spend most of their time eating, drinking, and wandering around Paris looking at stuff. Since this is a journal, it takes us through the trip day by day, so it mainly focuses on the details of what they ate and drank, where they went, and what they saw. This makes for a sensory smorgasbord of meats, cheeses, pickles, cakes, spirits, cigarettes, rain, and music. If, like me, you enjoy reading about such things, or about Paris in general, you will be delighted by the feeling of immediacy that Knisley’s scenes evoke. (Note: better eat before reading or you’ll be sadly disappointed at the non-Parisian state of your refrigerator when you become hungry halfway through.)
My favorite thing about French Milk is that although Lucy is in Paris for a month eating and drinking delicious things (god, I’m so hungry now), she still gets in funks, misses her boyfriend, gets annoyed with her mom, has cramps, and generally feels out of place in the world. And, while in moments she could come off as an asshole to those of us not in Paris, it mostly adds texture to what might otherwise be a pretty superficial trip. She has that feeling of being privileged to do something that she’s not fully appreciating: that feeling of “I’m in Paris on vacation so I should be happy but my stupid brain is intruding with my real personality and preventing the word vacation from being synonymous with bliss.” You know that feeling, right?
what was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?
To celebrate Lucy’s birthday, her father comes to Paris to visit and she and her parents go to Père Lachaise cemetery so Lucy can pay homage to Oscar Wilde, who’s buried there. Lucy talks a lot about Wilde—he’s an apt interlocutor for her journal, which is so invested in physical pleasures, art, and aesthetics. But, while French Milk is mostly delightful drawings of food and wanderings around Paris, the funks that Lucy gets in from time to time begin, by the middle of the book, to touch on real depression: fears of her impending college graduation, anxiety that she won’t be able to find a job, insecurity about her self-worth as an artist. So, woven throughout this story of a Parisian adventure are the real world concerns of a woman in her early twenties trying to find where she belongs.
The strength of French Milk’s journal format is the specificity of Lucy and her mother’s experiences—that cheese, this painting, that bridge, these buildings. That immediacy drew me in and made me feel like I, too, was in Paris for a time, along with all my senses. That format was French Milk’s biggest weakness, too, I think. Because the book was stuck in the realism of what things happened when, it never quite opened up into being more than one woman’s experience with things in a highly unusual setting. Whereas sometimes travel shines a light on the feelings of alienation or belonging that a writer always feels but cannot quite capture when in familiar territory, in French Milk those feelings become so specific as to seem a bit solipsistic.
The frontispiece of the book says that French Milk “deals with the valuable and significant influence that we take from our mothers, as well as my own struggle toward adulthood at an age when we so desperately cling to our adolescence.” This is true, in moments, but the journal format doesn’t leave Knisley any room to shape those themes into more affecting art, instead leaving them where they lie. That makes French Milk, for me, an escape piece—more travel writing (drawing) than creative nonfiction. And that isn’t a bad thing; far from it. I thoroughly enjoyed my trek through the streets and foods of Paris—even though I don’t care for milk.
The one moment that French Milk lost me was this page when Lucy and her mom learn of Saddam Hussein’s execution but then find “humanity redeemed” when they eat good cookies (66):
I think this is actually a very realistic reaction. So much of the book upholds a Wildean aestheticism (a celebration of taste food, drink, sensuality), though, that the use of taste in this instance—to redeem acts of cruelty and violence—made the rest of the book feel a bit more . . . superficial?
Everything Is Its Own Reward: An All Over Coffee Collection by Paul Madonna (2011). “All Over Coffee” began as a column of Paul Madonna’s that first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. It pairs Madonna’s stunning ink wash drawings with musings about the places he visits, from San Francisco to Tokyo to Paris. Gorgeous!
Procured from: library