ARE YOU MY MOTHER? by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 304 pages, $25.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
In Alison Bechdel's acclaimed and bestselling 2006 graphic novel Fun Home, she wove the story of her father - a domineering, closeted bisexual who committed suicide - into her own coming-out story.
In her new book, she explores her close but complicated relationship with her mother - a fiercely intelligent, detached woman whose artistic ambitions were never fully realized - alongside the therapy she's been in for decades.
Unfussy prose and engaging illustrations link Bechdel's neuroses and ongoing relationship difficulties to her need for her mother's attention and approval. Again and again she returns to small, significant moments, like when her mother abruptly stopped kissing her good night as a child. Each time, she finds new insight.
Bechdel is fearless when it comes to the timeline, shaping the story intuitively rather than chronologically, and putting the graphic novel format to work in order to make astonishing connections. At one point, in text she tells the story of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott's experience with a truant nine-year-old, but matches it with illustrations of a fight she and her mother had when she was a teenager.
Parallels emerge. Past and present coexist, as they do in real life.
The book is, in fact, partly a biography of Winnicott, whom Bechdel deeply admires. She also addresses the theories of Alice Miller, Adrienne Rich, Sigmund Freud and Virginia Woolf. A dream sequence starts each chapter. Time is spent meta-musing about the challenges of writing the book. Occasionally she succumbs to dense psychoanalytical jargon, and the midsection is frustratingly over-thought (though that might be the intent).
With so many threads, it's a small miracle that the book coalesces into something so powerful, graceful and resolved by the end. That, in a nutshell, is Bechdel's genius.