Head Over Heels for Laura Dean

A book review is a tricky beast.

It’s easy to love or hate a book. It’s harder to try to put those feelings into words (as opposed to wild gesticulation), and harder still to talk about a book in a way that anticipates how it might make others feel.

I’m putting all of this up front because I want to come clean and say that I fell in l-o-v-e with Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me.

I fell in love hard. I don’t remember the last time a graphic novel swept me up so quickly and completely. In its opening pages we see Freddy and her friends getting ready for an ‘80s-themed dance at their high school, laughing at appropriated nostalgia as entertainment in a nod to the story’s theme of adult-ish relationships enacted by a bunch of kids who don’t really understand those, either. As the dialogue shifted around our heroine and the art echoed her isolation in painful anticipation for someone — a very particular someone — to arrive, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me had my heart in its metaphorical hands. I got it bad, folks.

I loved wry, shy, self-involved Freddy, who glumly admits her freedom to be publicly humiliated by her same-sex paramour and have it treated as just the usual teenage angst is, technically, “progress.” I loved Doodle, Freddy’s best friend who compares Freddy’s troubles to DnD campaigns and drags her to a tarot reader to find solutions. I loved Buddy and Eric, the couple in Freddy’s friend group that Freddy claims are the only people she knows “who act like they’re really in love,” but who clearly have their own problems.

I loved, especially, the artistic rendering of the world they live in, and how they move through it. Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s art (the story is by Mariko Tamaki, also the writer for the award-winning graphic novels Skim and This One Summer) is a revelation, using only white, variations of gray, and pops of muted pink to capture an almost touchable sense of depth and texture. The composition of each page is thoughtful and evocative — how certain moments are framed, what elements the art focuses on, tell just as much of a story as the words on that page. Sometimes, when a graphic novel is created by both a writer and an artist, there can be the sense of those two elements coming together as separate entities. But the overall impression of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is as organic as the Berkeley vegetation that curls into the background, as inevitable as Freddy’s heartbreak.

That brings me to the only element I didn’t get to fall in love with: Laura Dean.

I wanted to, very much. Not that I wanted the book to excuse her horrible treatment of Freddy, or put a patch on the sheer awfulness of their situation. But since the book uses the medium of their relationship to tell the story, I did want to better understand how she could be someone Freddy fell for. We’re clear on the basic attraction: Laura Dean’s androgynous good looks, her swagger, her popularity. It’s a lot more murky what keeps drawing Freddy back, humiliation after humiliation, insult to all her friends upon injury to her own heart. Sex appeal is one thing, but without insight into how the two of them work beyond the drama, Freddy’s adherence to the pattern comes off as downright masochistic.

It’s not just Laura Dean who feels a bit opaque — there’s a lot going on with Freddy’s friends, and we don’t get to see as much as that as I would have liked, either. I think it’s fair to say that ties in with the book’s themes, as part of Freddy’s growth in understanding how infatuation narrows your world, while real love should open it up. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me wants you to know that love is different for everyone, which means our connections to the people (or books?) that we love are as individual, as unique, as the people themselves.

Which might mean you can’t trust a word of this review. This book is clearly an experience in of itself, with an emotional alchemy that gave me pure gold. I can’t predict the results for anyone else, but I can wholeheartedly recommend taking a chance on something — a pretty face in the crowd, a gorgeous book on a shelf — that could turn out absolutely fantastic.

Review by Katharine, a volunteer at Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room.

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Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me