Houghton Miffin, 2006
CHALLENGE(S): Graphic Novels Challenge, GLBT Challenge (mini)
Finished 18 April 2010
When I saw that this book had finally come in at the library, I actually did a little dance of readerly joy. I enjoyed Essential Dykes to Watch Out For so much that I was delighted to have the chance to read Bechdel’s graphic novel/memoir. I already had a deep fondness for her artistic style and knew she had a brilliant sense of humour, so I was pretty much guaranteed to enjoy this even before I turned the first page.
From the Goodreads summary:
Meet Alison’s father, a historic preservation expert and obsessive restorer of the family’s Victorian house, a third-generation funeral home director, a high school English teacher, an icily distant parent, and a closeted homosexual who, as it turns out, is involved with male students and a family babysitter. Through narrative that is alternately heartbreaking and fiercely funny, we are drawn into a daughter’s complex yearning for her father. And yet, apart from assigned stints dusting caskets at the family-owned “fun home,” as Alison and her brothers call it, the relationship achieves its most intimate expression through the shared code of books. When Alison comes out as homosexual herself in late adolescence, the denouement is swift . . . graphic . . . and redemptive.
I remember once discussing characters in a TV show with my mother. I felt particularly empathetic towards one of the male characters, and said so, remarking that I saw a lot of myself in him (sadly, I forget which show we were watching now). She stared at me for a moment, and said something which more or less boiled down to: “I’d never have thought of relating to a character that was not female.” Cue astonishment. She wasn’t exactly being judgmental, but her declaration brought me up short. Why did I connect with this character so much, when he was a guy (which, at that age, was pretty much akin to saying “another species”)? Did it matter that he was a guy? Eventually, I came to the conclusion that humanity is something so basic that it transcends those constructs like gender that we attach to it; something which had apparently sunk into my subconscious well before it actually filtered through to my conscious brain.
Reading Fun Home was like going through a similar experience, only this time from Bechdel’s point of view. Her discoveries about her father and his sexuality, running parallel to the acknowledgement of her own, were well told and conveyed significant emotional punch. The story was obviously centered on the father-daughter relationship, but it also spoke more generally about the parent-child bond and that moment when you realize, to your astonishment (and sometimes horror), that your parents are not demi-gods but human beings, with their own thoughts, feelings and secrets that you are not always privy to. It was also the story of Bechdel’s coming to terms with who her father was and who he wasn’t; accepting both his successes and his failures as a real, live human being rather than solely in his role as ‘her father.’
What particularly appealed to me was Bechdel’s manner of approach: level-headed, objective and analytical, with a dash of sardonic humour. There was no attempt to form arbitrary moral judgments or direct the reader’s opinion, just an open exploration of facts and feelings. I particularly appreciated her ability to relate her emotions without becoming cloying or cliche – she may be a tad cynical at times, but her unflinching honesty is as refreshing as it is entertaining.
Quite frankly, there is very little I can say against this book. Bechdel has an uncanny knack for cutting right to the heart of the matter, and her illustrations were wonderful (as always). The insightful literary analysis in the commentary and the deft intermingling of Bechdel’s own coming-out story was just the icing on the cake.
A book that challenges intellectually and emotionally, while still managing to make you laugh aloud. Definitely recommended.