The people! The places! The food! Paris comes alive through the art and photographs of Lucy Knisley in French Milk, her memoir of one month spent in France with her mother in January 2007. The novel is her creative, personal travelogue of Parisian life that defined a pivotal time in her own life.
The novel is actually a graphic novel — graphic in the sense that it is hand-drawn by Knisley and is, in fact, a visual diary. Lucy, 22, is set to graduate from art school and, like many soon-to-be post-grads, is battling the dreaded nausea experienced when many students imagine leaving college and finding a job in The Real World. Lucy has lived independently in Chicago, where she has many creative friends and spends time with boyfriend John, but she chooses to spend the time after Christmas and between the start of her final semester in France. She and her mother embark on a grand adventure that takes them far from home as they battle language barriers, mysterious foods and homesickness — all while learning more about themselves.
So I’m obsessed with traveling and art, and when I first read a review of French Milk a month or two ago? I was all over this. But it wasn’t a book that made its way into my hands until just the right moment . . . and I’m so glad I just found it. It’s a fast read, obviously, considering it comes in at under 200 pages and is full of vivid, interesting black-and-white illustrations. Lucy’s narratives and art are offset by actual photographs from her trip, which I loved. Comparing her interpretations of scenes with real pictures was so fun to me.
By the time I finished French Milk — only about an hour or so after I’d started — I absolutely felt as though I’d snuck onto the plane with the mother and daughter duo and feasted on the same foie gras in the same cafes. Lucy is very honest and realistic about her growing pains — the fears she experiences as she leaves behind her young adulthood and prepares to enter a new phase in her life. As someone experiencing the same pangs, I really related to her. Immediately after graduating from college in 2007 — Lucy and I are the same age — I took a trip to Europe with my family, visiting England, Italy and Belgium. That vacation completely changed who I was a person, much in the same way that Lucy’s time in Paris fundamentally changed who she was — as a person and, I’m sure, as an artist.
Visually experiencing Lucy’s story was very different than reading about Lucy’s experiences — in a good way. I loved her sketches of the delicious food they consumed (and my stomach was grumbling the whole time, let me tell you) and felt like I, too, was standing on the Eiffel Tower as it swayed in a strong wind (terrifying!). I have very little experience with graphic novels — it’s limited to Art Spiegelman’s Maus and a few comic books an ex-boyfriend pushed on me — but I was open-minded about this one and wasn’t disappointed.
What did the story lack? Emotional resonance. What I felt while reading the book had less to do with Lucy’s reactions to what she saw, felt and tasted and much more to do with my own personal experiences in Europe. I enjoyed the novel for what it made me remember and what it showed me, but I would have loved to know more about what Lucy was really feeling about being apart from John — a stranger in a strange land. Learning about Americans’ traveling experiences abroad is a subject of total fascination for me, and I would have loved to see more about the cultural differences and funny anecdotes about language barriers.
But, then again, this was Lucy’s travel journal — not mine.
If you’re new to the graphic novel genre or just aren’t sure “seeing” a story this way is for you, I still encourage you to give French Milk a try. The subject matter — travel, glorious travel! — was enough to draw me in from the get-go. And I dare you to not want a big, healthy gulp of cold, sweet and delicious French dairy after closing this book! Francophiles and travel bugs will get special enjoyment out of this novel, too, and probably want to hop on Expedia to book their summer vacation after finishing. Speaking of which, a few travel websites are calling my name . . .
4 out of 5!