I’ve read a grand total of three graphic novels (including Maus I and II and Persepolis 1 and 2), but it seems to me that there’s something about the medium that lends itself to personal histories.
Anya Ulinich’s Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel* is no exception. A mordantly funny look at love, online dating, divorce, and growing up, this is tragicomedy at its best. The tone is set on page three: “My sexual awakening was entirely the fault of the U.S. State Department.”
On a book tour in St. Petersburg, Lena reconnects with an old flame, and wonders whether they should try to work things out. Twice divorced, with two children, Lena still isn’t as experienced as she’d like to be in matters of love and sex, and so she decides to try online dating, with hilarious results. The heartbreak comes when she falls for a man offline.
The account of Lena’s dating escapades is peppered with detours into her past, and these were the most interesting segments of the novel, though often far from funny. Lena talks about growing up in the USSR as it teetered on the brink of toppling, and then recounts what it was like to live as a recent immigrant in Arizona in the early 1990s.
Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel is a fast read, and refreshing in both its format and its honesty about its heroine’s many foibles and struggles. If you like memoir-like fiction and are looking for a book that stands out from the crowd — and if you like a good Chekhov reference — Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel is for you.
What’s your favorite graphic novel? Which one do you think I should try next?
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.
10 thoughts on “Recommended Reading: Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, by Anya Ulinich”
Hands down my favourite graphic novel is Essex County. Its not even close. I would recommend that one to you all day long.
Haven’t read this one yet but Maus and Persopolis are both excellent. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli is not quite a personal history, but it is my favourite and I highly recommend it.
Thank you! I’ll keep an eye out for it.
The only graphic novel I’ve read is Sandman and I loved it. It’s more of a series, though. Neil Gaiman is brilliant and I loved all the different styles of art. I’m intrigued by the titles you and other commenters have mentioned, so thanks for the ideas.
I do love Neil Gaiman, so I’ll keep an eye out for that one!
This sounds good. I have read exactly the same graphic novels that you have, except for this one.
This sounds good, Carolyn. I know very little about graphic novels, and keep thinking that the main genre is fantasy. I began looking into graphic novels as a way to continue studying Japanese (my plan was to read one in English translation and then try it in Japanese). A friend of mine recommended All My Darling Daughters, by Fumi Yoshinaga, which tells the stories of several (evolving) mother-daughter relationships in Japan (e.g., a grown daughter having to accept her single mother’s young boyfriend). I don’t know how to judge whether a graphic novel is “good” or not but I did enjoy this one.
Thanks, Cecilia! I’ll put that on my TBR list!