Lucy Knisley is both the Bill Bryson and the Peter Mayle of the graphic novel.
I just had to get that out of the way, because it’s been on my mind since I started reading French Milk. Knisley doesn’t go into intense detail, but her comic renderings of life, both within French Milk and her other comics, fill you with the irrepressible impulse to go out and live life to its fullest, to eat every part of everything you can find, to look at everything, and to savor every moment of it in whatever way you can do so.
Lucy’s savorings, fortunately, are lovingly captured in brushed ink and black-and-white photographs for 200 pages, as she stays in a French apartment with her mother for over a month. As she experiences France, she draws a few notable things every day, writes a few sentences about each event, and as a result, she makes me very, very jealous that I can’t tolerate any kind of dairy and that fine wines do nothing for me.
What emerges from Lucy’s journey is more of a travelogue than a comprehensive tour of France, with a few historical details dropped in here and there. It almost seems as if it’s secretly more about the introspection that being in a foreign place causes, which lies just under the surface of her unadulterated love of food, literature, art, and the idiosyncrasies of the world. Her journal is a rapid succession of things, captured deftly in between adventures, and usually avoids anything that might be deeply personal, aside from creative self-doubt and that fear of never finding that hilariously rare combination of “financially secure” and “professional artist.” It’s that lightness that sustained my interest through every page, and late at night, as I finished the final pages, I really didn’t want her to go home. I wanted to see what other unusual food items she would wrap a few inky lines around, or which rude (or devastatingly beautiful) French person she’d caricature next.
Of course, I have a deep love of the minutiae that dances on the surface of everything, and all of that is beautifully detailed. If you’re looking for the “loving look at a mother-daughter relationship” that the back of the book itself describes, you might have a hard time finding it inside between the baguettes and the buckets of foie gras --- but it’s clearly under there, given the amazing rapport that Lucy shares with her parents. It’s really not discussed at all, and perhaps it’s my love and knowledge of Lucy’s other work that really drives home this familial point.
French Milk would find a comfortable place in an older teen collection, most especially because it’s fairly concrete proof that you can get along famously with your kinfolk. The brief discussions of sex, and a photograph of an ad for French pornography, might make you want to keep it out of the hands of younger kids. They wouldn’t find too much of interest inside anyhow, but French Milk has found a unique place between The Man Who Ate Everything and The Lost Continent on my personal bookshelf.
I’m going to go out and live now.
Reviewed by Collin David on October 14, 2008