Title: French Milk
Author: Lucy Knisley
Star Rating: * ½
Genre: Graphic memoir/travelogue
French Milk is about Lucy Knisley’s month-long trip to Paris when she was 22. It is meant to be both a travelogue, as well a series of ruminations on the transition to adulthood. Unfortunately, the book does neither particularly well.
As a piece of emotive writing, Knisley’s narrative betrays her age. While she both introduces and concludes her book with commentary on how her trip was supposed to reflect a significant part of her journey to adulthood, her writing doesn’t engage with this topic in any depth. For example, Knisley says that the book reflects her changing relationship with her mother. As a reader, I have no idea what her relationship was with her mother before she left as she did not really touch on this issue, let alone explore the changes that were supposedly occurring during her trip. If this was a significant part of her emotional growth, it should have been discussed in greater detail. In Relish, Knisley’s other major published work, she discusses her relationships with her parents with nuance and subtlety. Readers can feel the tensions and difficulties that she had to work through. This is not true of French Milk which is largely focused on Knisley’s personal fears of inadequacy and change. However, Knisley also fails to really talk about the realisations that she had in regards to coming-of-age and dealing with a new stage of her life. While it is true that questions about these topics were raised (briefly), most of the narrative was spent dwelling on negative emotions rather than sorting them out. Since the author led me to believe that she had something to say on the issue of growing up, I was not impressed with the lack of detail and self-reflection in this piece.
In terms of art, I am usually a huge fan of Knisley’s style as it is very clean, simple, and expressive. French Milk was created when she was still figuring out who she was as an artist, and the work is much less sure of itself in comparison to her later illustrations. Instead of her typical thin line work, Knisley uses brushes and ink in this piece, a method that I quite enjoy. However, the sketches themselves are rough, and the characters are not always on model. Many of these sketches were also drawn while Knisley was on the move, so many are not as neat or clear as they could be. Another questionable choice was the fact that Knisley did not add a few finished pieces to the book. I would have loved to see some detailed illustrations of Paris. Her food drawings, in particular, could have used a more refined technique as it was difficult to differentiate the items on her plate, and it was hard to feel appetized by the really amazing culinary delights that she was sampling since I couldn’t see many of them!
Another thing that bothered me about the art direction of French Milk was the included photographs. Most were oddly framed, and they were either out-of-focus, or had a filter applied to them that made it seem as if they were. I didn’t feel as if they added much to Knisley’s stories, and would have much preferred to see some complex illustrations.
Travelogues are tricky beasts. When done well, the medium allows readers to immerse themselves in the place that the writer was visiting. These pieces are meant to be very descriptive and detailed, with language that rings heavily with verisimilitude. Graphic travelogues are a great opportunity to present readers with full illustrations of scenes, as well as tinier details, or even simple sketches capturing fleeting emotions. Readers of French Milk, unfortunately, would be hard-pressed to be able to imagine themselves in Paris unless they had other images of the city in their heads already. Most of Knisley’s graphics are close-up or body shots of people. Rarely does she add detailed backgrounds to her pieces. There is little sense of scope to her images, and I had a hard time envisioning her travelling throughout the city.
The last issue that I had with this book has to do with Knisley herself. In French Milk, Knisley at 22 can be very self-absorbed and obliviously privileged. While I understand that this is a tumultuous time period in people’s lives (being that I am only in my late twenties), it is often hard to feel sympathy for Knisley because she just doesn’t seem to realise just how many great things are happening in her life. Furthermore, even though this book is supposed to represent a period of growth for Knisley, one of the last scenes that she recounts talks about how her and her mother were so upset that they were told not to play a DVD without headphones on the plane that they responded by having a loud conversation to punish those around them. Knisley in French Milk was still embedded in a very self-focused segment of her life, and her memoir was not one that I particularly enjoyed reading since she didn’t seem to change all that much by the end of the book.
French Milk was a very amazing achievement for a young artist like Knisley, but it is by far the weakest of all her published works that I have read. It is neither a very effective travelogue, nor a deep exploration of the ennui of youth. If you are interested in memoirs, read Relish instead as it shows much more thoughtful and mature reflections on her life. Or if travelogues are your thing, buy Tanzania Travelogue off her website as it is much more evocative and richly visual. Knisley is a fantastic artist and story-teller, but French Milk just wasn’t for me.