French Milk by Lucy Knisely. Epigraph, 2007.
Genre: Graphic Novel (YA, or maybe New Adult? Let’s talk about it after the jump.)
Face Value: Lovely. This is a neat graphic novel cover because it lures you in from far away in the bookstore with the romantic French architecture, then when you get close you see that it’s a graphic novel with an illustrated protagonist. It’s a sweet cover, and it feels both young and grown-up at the same time. Lucy looks young, and she draws herself as such, yet the dangling cigarette and sophisticated setting signal that she is very much an adult, albeit a ‘young’ or ‘new’ one.
Does it break the slate? There is nothing especially revolutionary about French Milk, but it is a pleasant book that tells the story of two women on their own little adventure in Paris. Lucy and her mother are smart, capable women. Lucy writes and draws about her response to depictions of women in art, as well as her opinions on relationships and careers. It’s not a slate-smashing book that will revolutionize perceptions of gender, but it is a strong travel narrative by a young woman who is confident enough to explore other cultures and reflect on what she learns.
Who would we give it to? I handed my copy to my sister who is about to study abroad, and I think it would be the perfect book for anyone preparing for a significant journey, whether it is out of state or overseas. French Milk is about chronicling new experiences, and I think it could be both a comfort and an inspiration for any reader about to have a major new experience of their own.
A note on age appropriateness – French Milk is about a young woman in her early twenties. She talks frankly about her sex life, and there’s casual consumption of alcohol and cigarettes, but there is nothing you wouldn’t find in a typical YA realistic fiction novel. In my opinion, high school students would enjoy this book as a travel narrative. Older readers of college-age would get something different out of this book, I think, because of the way it describes the unique fears that come during major life changes.
Review: New Adult Fiction. It’s a thing now. Or has it always been a thing? Inspired by the debate around recent articles declaring that new adult fiction is the hot genre on the publishing scene, I decided to explore some books that one could categorize as “new adult.” French Milk was published in 2007, before the term “new adult” was truly in use, but the book definitely includes traits that could classify it as a new adult book. Lucy is a young adult, age 22, who is contemplating her future career and her sexual relationships while thinking about the exciting and scary prospect of leaving college and being out on her own.
There’s something about French Milk that makes it feel like a Millennial/Generation Y anthem. Lucy is privileged enough to be able to take a six-week trip to Paris and not have to worry about earning an income while she is there. I was a little miffed at the author for feeling stressed and anxious about such an awesome opportunity, but I quickly got over that. Knisley writes about her own guilt at feeling nervous about her big trip, and how she recognizes her privilege but that still doesn’t stop her from feeling crappy about her personal challenges.
French Milk is a delicious narrative of the richness of Knisley’s Parisian environment. Every description of food is accompanied by charming drawings that make me want to eat for days on end. I want to try everything that she tried, even if it’s something that I would never normally eat, like foie gras.
Just looking at that illustration again makes me want to go have a snack. I love the way she draws – the drawings are lively, somehow. I feel like the drawings are laughing cheerfully from where they sit on the page.
And although she describes her trip with enough detail to make you swoon from your reading chair, there’s a dark edge to her story. Knisley’s trip to Paris coincides with a transitional time in her life, when she is plagued with the angst of finishing her undergraduate degree and heading out into the unknown. She is excited for the future, and clearly has a strong support system and a great deal of talent – but it’s terrifying to know that you will soon need to find a job, figure out how to pay for your own rent and groceries and EVERYTHING ELSE. Her struggle to face this inevitability is effectively juxtaposed with the escapist delights of her six weeks in a magical city.
Another endearing aspect of French Milk is the way in which Knisley shows an artist’s reaction to famous art. She spent much of her time in Paris visiting museums, and she draws/writes her thoughts on iconic pieces by renowned artists. I always feel like a complete heel if I’m looking at a famous painting and I just don’t like it. Knisley shares her responses – both positive and negative – in a way that demonstrates respect for the artist, yet still clearly articulates her preferences and style. I loved her commentary on nude women in art – it was a feminist gem tucked into the story.
French Milk is not a typically structured story. There is no major dramatic arc or denouement, but rather a simple and straightforward chronicle of a very special trip. If you are stuck in a less-than-romantic locale this summer and want to take a literary vacation, French Milk is excellent for arm chair travelling. Or perhaps you are a “new adult” like me, who sometimes needs some company when that big scary monster of adulthood is staring you down – French Milk is perfect for that, too. Wherever you stand in the whole “new adult” genre debate, this book is worth exploring.
Reviewed from library copy.