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Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, By Alison Bechdel

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Bechdel, A. (2006). Fun home: A family tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Paperback $14.95, Kindle $8.00, 232 pages

ISBN: 978-0618871711

Author’s Website and Interviews:

http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/

http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/blog

Interview: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/11/we-just-sat-and-held-each-other-how-it-feels-to-watch-your-life-story-onstage/281369/

Interview: http://www.progressive.org/alison-bechdel-interview

Online Reviews:

The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/18/books/review/18wilsey.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Los Angeles Times: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/oct/22/entertainment/la-et-cm-fun-home-review

Annotation: Her father’s need for perfection shrouded a double life that kept him and his family prisoner.

Summary (Warning Spoilers): Alison Bechdel, author and narrator, recounts the story of her childhood and her often strained relationship with her father. The novel begins with Alison telling of her father’s obsession with renovating their family home which was an old Victorian. She believes her father’s obsession with perfection is a means of masking the internal chaos he has.  She compares the fixing up of their old house to that seen in the movie It’s A Wondeful Life but that is where the comparison ends as she reveals her father’s temper is not a one time thing like Jimmy Stewart’s, but rather a daily occurrence. The story then recounts the death of her father which she believes to have been a suicide not an accident. Her father had been carrying lawn clipping across the street and was hit by a Sunbeam Bread truck. Her mother had asked for a divorce two weeks prior and Alison had also disclosed her own sexuality which she believes factored into her father’s death. Four months before her father’s death Alison had come out to her parents via a letter she types and the news was not well received. Her mother blurts out that her father had slept with men and young boys, downplaying the importance of Alison’s self-revalation. The story then charts Alison’s realization that she is a lesbian which began at age thirteen. Through books and meetings with the “Gay Union” Alison begins to discover who she truly is and meets her girlfriend Joan who is a poet. She then begins recounting memories of vacations with her father and her babysitter Roy who she later discovers was having an affair with her father.  Her father later reveals to her one night on their way to a movie, his own sexual history with men and his desire to have been a girl, a revelation that help forge an unspoken bond and acceptance between father and daughter.

Evaluation: I thoroughly enjoyed this graphic novel and felt that the comic strip format really aided in the darkly humorous nature of the story.  The author gives the reader a deeply personal look at not only her own struggle with coming to terms with her sexuality but the struggle of her father as well. I found her writing to be honest, powerful, and shocking at times. Each picture provided a glimpse of her life from childhood to adulthood, capturing the bizarre dysfunction that helped shape her. Her writing, along with the artwork, portrayed both the differences and similarities between Alison and her father. In the beginning of the book she almost sets herself up as his opposite but as the novel progresses similarities begin to emerge and it is clear that this is a source of conflict for her. Although the book sheds her father in not a very positive light it reveals his humanness, his weaknesses, and attempts to explain, make sense, and justify an obviously conflicted and tortured soul. I don’t think the book would have been as powerful had it not been done in the style of a graphic novel. I think the pictures really added to the story and brought her words to life. It was as if I was actually there witnessing her childhood and the characters were brought to life through each black and white drawing. I believe that the author employs the use of writing through the allusive lens of literary novels as a  means of defining and coming to terms with family relationships. Each story used to mirror her family attempts to make them more real to her. In reality there was a complete disconnect from  her father but as she recounts part of her childhood through the lens of a Greek myth, it adds a layer of connection not attainable in real life. Overall I found the novel to been extremely well written, complex, layered, and darkly humorous which made the story simultaneously beautiful and tragic.

Genre: Graphic Novel, (Memoir)

Appeal Factors: Hilarious, raw, and revealing writing. The black and white pictures add to the text making the writing more accessible and easier to follow storyline. Character driven and reflective.

Read-alike Titles and Authors:

Stitches by David Small

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

Awards:

Named Best Comic Book of 2006 by The New York Times, Amazon.com, The Times of London, New York Magazine, and Publishers Weekly

2007 GLAAD Media Award Winner for Outstanding Comic Book

Stonewall Book Award for non-fiction

Booktalk Ideas:

  • Present the audience with an if/then type scenario. If Alison’s dad hadn’t left the highlighted passages in his books about death and suicide, then would Alison still have believed her coming out triggered his suicide?
  • Use audience questions to evoke an emotional response/connection to the book or to a specific character. Put them in the shoes of Alison or her father. Discuss book themes such as sexual angst, shame,  acceptance, and forgiveness to help create emotional connections.
  • Make connections between what happens in the book and what is happening in the news in terms of equality, gay rights, etc. Had the book been set in present day do you think her father would have still struggled with coming to terms with his own sexuality? Provide examples of how the themes of this book connects to issues today.

Book Discussion Questions:

1. How is Bruce Bechdel’s (the father) need to obsessively restore the family’s Victorian home connected to the emotional coldness and distance he has with his family?Is this directly connected to his being a closeted homosexual? What does the house represent for Alison?

2. How does sexuality free Alison yet force her father to hide his true self? Is Bruce’s world of perfection a cover or an escape from his true sexuality? Why can’t he be as free as his daughter?

3. Do you think Alison’s father resents the fact that her sexuality has freed her yet he remains hidden? Why or why not?

4. Do you think Alison’s father committed suicide or was it really just an accident? Please refer to specific passages.

5. Do you think her father’s copy of Camus’ Happy Death serves as a suicide note? What do you make of the margin notation left in another one of her father’s books? Do you think he had been planning his suicide for awhile?

6. Does Bruce’s confession about his own sexuality help to heal the relationship with Alison? Do you think Alison coming out as Lesbian aided in her father’s death?

7. What do you make of her mother’s matter of fact tone about her father’s homosexuality? Her mother knew about his affair with me, yet she remained married to him? Why do you think she chose to stay in what appears to be a loveless marriage?

I first came across this graphic novel as an undergraduate student and loved it so much I decided to read it again. I love that the comic is presented in a more traditional style through black and white pictures reminiscent of newspaper comic strips. I also was drawn to it because it is also a memoir which recounts the author’s often dysfunctional yet comical upbringing. I haven’t read very many graphic novels and this one received excellent reviews on Amazon and Good Reads which aided in my decision to read it. I was interested to see what made it a “tragicomic” and how the author would weave gothic imagery and twists into her life story in a humorous way.