#IMWAYR (9/21/2020): Bloom, written by Kevin Panetta and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau
I have to say two things before we get to today's review. First, the fact that Hachette Book Group is publishing J.K. Trolling's (pun still intended) ridiculously transphobic new book after she has already been ridiculously transphobic is, well, ridiculous. If you feel like educating yourself a bit about transgender people to fight those who run around espousing nonsense, read the fabulous MG book Zenobia July by Lisa Bunker (which I reviewed here)!
Second, I am absolutely crushed by the death of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, so much so that I felt I needed to say something here. It takes a certain kind of person to make decisions—informed, rational decisions that must be publicly explained, I might add—about a document as debated, as contemplated, and as vague as the Constitution. It takes a certain kind of person to work alongside not one, but two probable sexual abusers and still maintain the utmost composure. It takes a certain kind of person to be the second woman in one's field ever. It takes a certain kind of person to battle cancer on-and-off for 21 years and still fight for what they believe in. And it takes a certain kind of person to bring a sense of humor to it all—there's only one Supreme Court justice who wore a "dissent collar," and you know who it was. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a certain kind of person: a brave, smart, strong person who fought for justice all her life. And as we get swept away in the imminent political debacle, we must not allow Ginsburg's legacy to be overshadowed. She was like no other, and she will be dearly missed. May she rest in peace.
For #IMWAYR, I am reviewing the graphic novel Bloom, written by Kevin Panetta and illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau.
A word of caution to any young readers: this is a YA (young adult) book, not an MG (middle grade) book, and it contains somewhat mature content.
Bloom was recommended to me by my sibling, and it is definitely an interesting book to discuss. Bloom's protagonist is Ari Kyrkos, a high school graduate who wants to move away from home with his four friends/bandmates (he plays keyboard), but is trapped helping his parents run their struggling bakery. In order to leave the bakery, Ari tries to find someone to replace him, and he ends up finding Hector Galea, who loves baking and is actually taking a year off from culinary school. Hector seems like the perfect replacement, but as Ari gets him ready to take the job, a friendship and subsequent romance blossoms between them. Ari starts to wonder if maybe what he originally wanted is what he truly wants in life...but he also needs to figure out how to actually be good to Hector.
I remain somewhat confused about my verdict on this book, so maybe writing this review will help me figure out how I feel. First of all, I have to explain that Bloom is a book to be read with a specific mindset. You can't take all of the characters' actions or the plot elements too seriously, because their execution isn't flawless, and the book itself is more about conveying feeling than conveying plot. Exactly what Ari learns to do is what readers need to do to read Bloom: let go of your feelings, and bitterness, and expectations about what a book should be, and just get swept away in the fun, and the romance, and the art, and the joy. Trust me, doing that was not easy for me to accomplish—I'm more of an iron-death-grip-on-every-plot-element kind of reader—but it finally happened, and what I found was a relaxing, pleasant story with a romance that (as someone who doesn't tend to enjoy romance in books—basically the Flora Belle Buckman from Flora & Ulysses of YA readers) I couldn't help but root for, and get swept away in, and totally love! I am saying all of this here because I am going to criticize this book, in more than one way, but none of that means that it can't be a fun read. You just have to take it with a grain of salt and not expect some Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me-style moral message.
(Random side note: while linking my Flora & Ulysses review, I came upon this message from me in January: "I hope everyone is enjoying 2020 so far!" Oh, how naïve I was. Silly Completely Full Bookshelf, enjoyment of 2020 is for no one!)
Before I get into my criticism, a bit more specific praise. The flow of Bloom is just excellent, particularly regarding Ari and Hector's relationship. Ari and Hector's relationship develops a bit quickly at first, but the pacing of it smooths out into something totally natural. Graphic novels have the potential to not be as pedantic and analytical as prose books have to be to get a point across, and Bloom absolutely fulfills that potential. Ari and Hector are just totally adorable together, and at times, they bring out the best in each other, even though one is grumpy and hates baking and the other is happy and loves baking. I also appreciate the depiction of how money troubles can affect kids, especially ones in the planning-one's-future stage of life, as Ari finds himself tied down by his parents' need for help to keep the bakery afloat. Bloom has a fair amount (not quite as much as I'd like, but enough) of baking fun as well, with some gorgeous baking-montage spreads that hammer home how relaxing and fulfilling baking can be (as I'm sure any bakers reading this can attest to). (There's even a recipe for the sourdough rolls baked in the book!) The book's quiet diversity, with both a gay relationship at its center and the Greek and Samoan heritage of Ari and Hector, respectively, is quite nice to see. Finally, the art in general of this book is gorgeous: illustrator Savanna Ganucheau's style is lovely, with the right balance of detail and minimalism, and the serene blues that populate every panel are sure to relax you as much as the plot will (if you let it).
Okay, now for some criticism. First off, I think the biggest thing I didn't like about Bloom is how it treats some of the unkindnesses of the characters. I'm not what you'd call an expert on interpersonal relationships, so I am often unsure where the boundary between oversensitivity and the right to get insulted or mad is exactly. And I think, in general, deciding how many flaws and mistakes you will put up with from the people you love before you decide to leave them is basically one of the biggest problems in human existence. Anyway, the point is: Ari has four friends, one of whom, Cameron, is mean to Ari, but Ari just lives with it (even as one of his other friends decries it). But then Cameron is mean to Hector, and Ari doesn't do anything in the moment; he later tries to get Cameron to stop privately but is a total pushover about it. It hurts Hector, and Ari still can't see how wrong his friends are and doesn't apologize; honestly it's very reminiscent of how Ari's own father sometimes snaps at him even though we're actually supposed to like him. They lay all this groundwork for us to totally psychoanalyze Ari and how his parental issues have led him to not grasp what is and is not acceptable or kind behavior from those you care about or toward those you care about...and then the book almost completely drops the topic. And I'm over here, with my aforementioned-iron-death-grip on the plotlines, completely flabbergasted. Call me Completely Flabbergasted Bookshelf. I mean, how could you lay all those details out so carefully and then forget about them? That's like making a careful breadcrumb trail to retrace your path in the woods, then running three miles away until you're totally lost! As the reader, I was left wondering if Hector is too forgiving of Ari, or if I should have a little more sympathy for Ari, or even if we're supposed to think Hector is overreacting, and I felt deeply irritated by the whole thing. This is the big "letting go of the book's flaws" thing you have to be able to do if you want to enjoy Bloom. By the end, I had done it (a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective), and I felt like I had read a fun, enjoyable book. But after having the bar for problematic relationships in books set by Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, I find myself expecting that kind of enlightenment in all the books I read. Bloom does not deliver that level of enlightenment, I'm sorry to say. In addition, there are two other, smaller flaws: Ari's "love of music" amounts to about 3 pages worth of content—not much for the protagonist's main interest. Also, Hector's position in the story is a little weird. He's not a protagonist, so we don't see as much about his personal life as we see with Ari—we certainly don't see any real character flaws (besides maybe being too forgiving). But he is also a very prominent character in the story, a character who readers will be liking and rooting for, so I wish we got to see a bit more about him.
So, yeah. I think that's all my criticism (as if you can say "that's all" to a massive paragraph of ranting). Here's basically my final verdict—I think I've found it. Bloom is by no means a perfect book. It makes some pretty obnoxious mistakes that, honestly, make it a pretty bad example of how to have a relationship in real life. But it's also really fun. There's kisses, and quirky friends, and baking, and lying on the roof, looking at the stars (and then falling off the roof, which my Flora Belle Buckman self delighted in). The art is gorgeous, and you won't be able to help but root for Ari and Hector, separately and together. If you feel like you understand the risks (from all that ranting, I hope you do!), and you feel like you're kind of curious about this story, consider borrowing a copy from your library (or even buying one if you feel like living on the edge). I think you'll have fun, and I'd certainly love to hear your ranting-thoughts as much as I apparently love to hear my own. And, at the end of the day, the romance in this book managed to defrost my cold, dead heart more than anything else I've ever read—that makes Bloom a winner in my book. (Get it? My book? I couldn't resist.)
Update (11/30/2020): My rating is: Pretty good!