La Perdida

Written by Jessica Abel
Illustrated by Jessica Abel
Pantheon Books

I think if I remember correctly, I read about this one in the New York Times Book Review, which will occasionally step off its high horse and talk about things aren't the books everyone's supposed to be reading but never get around to. (Love ya, NYT, I'll review a book for you anytime, just call, okay? You have my cell, right?)

Abel is yet another great cartoonist working in the non capes genre that I've finally found and now want to get my arms around, though the further I dig, the further it grows. This book is the story of a young woman from Chicago, who after years of being estranged from her father's Mexican heritage, decides on a whim to visit Mexico, planning to mooch off her on again, off again rich ex boyfriend for a bit and take in the sights. She ends up taking in a lot more, and stays far past her legal expiration date. Things are cool for awhile, as Carla immerses herself in what she thinks are everything that makes Mexico great, rejecting any and all ties to her old life. But it's not as easy as all that, and after a visit from her brother, who never tried to be anything he isn't, Carla starts to see things about the world around her. But by then it may just be far too late, as Carla's choices catch up to her. Will she lose it all, or can this ex-pat find herself in time? I've read the book, and I'm not sure I know the answer.

This is truly a graphic novel, clocking in at about 250 pages of dense text, made worse by the only minor quibble I had, namely the decision to keep changing how to translate the speakers. The lettering is already jumbled in reduction, and the boxes of translation and brackets only make this more of a problem. However, that's nothing in comparison to this very good story that shows us that trying to imitate others, whether they're famous beat writers or drug-using/dealing socialists, is never a safe bet. Carla stands in for anyone who's thought that they could fit in by trying to be that which they're not, and while very few of us ever have such a violent consequence for their folly, I think we can all agree that down this path lies madness. That's part of why this works so well for me--we know it's not going to be smooth sailing for Carla, even without the foreshadowing of the first few pages. Still, Abel's story draws us in, little by little, until we can't possibly see a way out for Carla, even though it's been staring her--and us--right in the face.

Carla makes a mistake we do, too--assuming things are different just because the surroundings are different. In the end, it's about how you relate to the world, not which world you're in. It's a lesson Abel teaches us through Carla, though it never feels like a lesson because the writing is so good.

I haven't said much about the art, and that's no slight on Abel's penciling. She does a good job of taking advantage of shading, hairstyle, and repeated clothing to keep us abreast of our cast. I never had to flip back and say, "who's that again?" which is a problem I run into from time to time in this genre. The style is straightforward, with Abel using subtle turns of the head or body language to indicate emotion or to punctuate meaning.

This is one of the best graphic novels I've read this year, and I recommend it to anyone, even those who aren't much for panel-patter. Maybe the New York Times Book Review knows when to include comics, after all.