Alison Bechdel has never shied away from revealing herself. Her mother, on the other hand, has. Bechdel has revealed the deeply troubled past of her family (being brought up by a depressed, closeted father who eventually committed suicide) in the prize-winning FUN HOME, and detailed the funny yet poignantly truthful lives of fictional lesbian characters.
"As always, Bechdel’s work is solidly textured and deeply meaningful. It fits fine with a top-level, quick reading, but its truest rewards come from lingering on its pages and seeing the deeply rooted connections she’s making."
ARE YOU MY MOTHER? borrows some of its style and structure from FUN HOME (it’s sprawling and nonlinear, told in dual tones, and, most obviously, focuses on her insights into her parentage), but Bechdel creatively and cleverly avoids treading over any of the same ground. It’s a quite impressive task, creating a memoir as epic and bold as this one and still infusing it with a unique freshness that is all its own. Throughout its pages, we still find new insights that build on what we’ve read in FUN HOME but never rehashes it.
Much of the book, interestingly, is about itself, a delightfully self-referential exercise that mimics the real-life story of Bechdel’s own development. Bechdel painstakingly struggles to write and draw the story and make all the pieces come together. Reading this struggle made me realize how brilliantly nuanced this book truly is. Bechdel dances on the edge of not one but two very dangerous storytelling canyons: first, a memoir about one’s strained relationship with her mother risks being overwrought from the onset; second, doing a “metabook” about the struggles of writing a book can seem whiny and alienate readers if not done properly. Bechdel handles both of these with deft aplomb, creating richer ties with her reader as a result.
As always, Bechdel’s work is solidly textured and deeply meaningful. It fits fine with a top-level, quick reading, but its truest rewards come from lingering on its pages and seeing the deeply rooted connections she’s making. She pulls inspiration from a myriad of sources (writers, psychiatrists, lovers, friends, pop culture, therapists, her own work, and, of course, the words of her own mother), and she deconstructs and reconstructs them effortlessly. Somehow, the personal story of a woman whose life bears little resemblance to most readers’ takes on universality and resonance through its specificity.
Her mother is intriguing and ultimately a very sympathetic figure. She is reticent to have her life analyzed and dissected, so Bechdel parses meaning from tidbits of information, scattered memories, and her own experiences. Ultimately, though, this is Bechdel’s story, not truly her mother’s. Bechdel spends the entire book documenting her search for meaning in the act of achieving personhood, and through that, she attempts to create multiple mother figures. But the actual mother she has, and the one she finds within herself, are the ultimate rewards for her quest.
Reviewed by John Hogan on May 3, 2012