|Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
4.5 / 5
"Like many fathers, mine could occasionally be prevailed upon for a spot of 'airplane.'"
In this groundbreaking, bestselling graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel charts her fraught relationship with her late father. In her hands, personal history becomes a work of amazing subtlety and power, written with controlled force and enlivened with humor, rich literary allusion, and heartbreaking detail.
Distant and exacting, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the "Fun Home." It was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve.
I read this book quickly, partly because it's a graphic novel (can one call a nonfiction work that?) and partly because Alison Bechdel would be speaking at the college where I work within a week. This book was selected as the Freshman Read for this year, which means all entering students are required to read the same book, with certain activities (including a visit from the author) planned around this common book. When I was a freshman here (I work at the college I attended), the book was James Baldwin's amazing biography, The Color of Water.
Troy and I arrived early at Bechdel's talk, luckily - the big room filled up FAST, and it was far beyond SRO by the time the author took the stage - people were sitting on ledges, the floor, and tables (I was surprised to see the grand piano unadorned with bodies!). We had scored some nice seats on a couch in back, but the downside was that we were unable to see the author or the bottom third of her slides. While I know many in the audience were there because the entire freshman class was required to read the book (which I thought was an awesome choice), I know there were many like us in the crowd, who simply wanted to hear what Bechdel had to say. And she turned out to be a great speaker - I came to appreciate the book even MORE after having heard her talk. I'd encourage anyone to seek her out if she's in your area! The story of her beginnings as a lesbian comics artist - well before the advent and subsequent uber-popularity of webcomics - is as fascinating as her life story.
Which is what the book is about - or, at least, one aspect of her life story. (Bechdel will be coming out with a book that focuses more on her mother in the near future.) This one centered on the influence that her young father and his foibles had on her formative years. He was an exacting man, expected a lot from his children, and could be very strict. He didn't even really seem to enjoy having children until they were old enough to discuss books with. His family worked with him at the "fun home," which is what they called the family undertaking business! He's never moved from the small town in Appalachia where he had grown up - and, in fact, spent the entirety of his life living (and dying) within a radius of a few square miles. Needless to say, Bechdel's story was strongly influenced by all of these factors, and when she finally found a true common ground with her father, she was unable to connect with him because of his strict self-discipline (I'll let you read more about that, as it is the essence of her book).
I loved Bechdel's art - she got expressions and stances and feelings just right, not to mention all of the little touches in each drawing - and the way she laid out the story. Each chapter begins with her interpretation of a real family photograph, and then she spins each section off from that focal point. I also LOVED how much the book revolved around literature, which was an appropriate medium for telling the story of her father's life, as he was an avid (and very particular) reader. Her allusions to Proust made me particularly happy, especially the way she used his books to frame her story.
I could keep talking about this book for a long time, but I want to stop talking and let you discover the book for yourself. It was a wonderful and very appropriate choice for "required reading," and I hope that everyone encounters this book - it's a quick read! - sometime in their lives.
P.S. I think one of the things that really endeared me to this book was the author's half-funny, half-morbid use of Sunbeam bread in the background of many of her panels...you'll have to read the book to understand why I describe it that way!
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