Are You My Mother?
by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)

Are You My Mother? is more of an ongoing work than a sequel to Alison Bechdel's earlier memoir, Fun Home. It is by no means a light and easy read, but it's also a poignant, hilarious and thought-provoking personal odyssey about Bechdel developing an artistic self that's honest enough to free her of the rather serious emotional problems passed down to her from her mother.

Bechedel's mother put her dreams aside to marry and have children, there being few other socially acceptable choices in the post-World War II era. As a result, many women from that time became frustrated and angry over not having the chance to live their passions, creating heavy emotional burdens for their children. This, in turn, has crafted an entire generation of emotionally damaged-in-their-own-way daughters, Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, who love their moms but who don't always know quite how escape the fallout of growing up with adult role models who lived in a perpetual state of grieving.

The situation becomes compounded when the daughters do somehow manage to find a way to achieve their own dreams, as Bechdel did when she found a way to live through, and on, her art (the long-running cartoon strip Dykes to Watch Out For).

It takes an enormous amount of faith in yourself to create a deeply textured meta-story that explores the complicated, emotionally fraught terrain of mother-daughter relationships. The self-revelation contained in AYMM? is fearless and evocative, to say the least. It follows the same highly creative format that Fun Home did, using time loops, multiple points of view and interwoven, nonlinear narrative that sprawls all over the psychological map.

My one complaint with this otherwise excellent work is that it relies perhaps too heavily on scholarly analysis. At times the references, interesting as they are, become so dense that they replace the narrative, creating the impression that Bechdel is relying more on the work of others instead of her own gut. Too much referential material can become solipsistic, obscuring the real person at the heart of the narrative.

To sum up the metamessage: AYMM? is about a quest to be accepted and loved by the mother who doesn't know how to do either, and learning from there what it means to self-parent. It's for introspection more than enjoyment, and if you understand that, you'll see the value of it.

review by
Mary Harvey

2 February 2013

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