#IMWAYR (9/7/2020): Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell
Happy Labor Day! For #IMWAYR, I am recommending the stunning graphic novel Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell.
A word of caution to any young readers: this is a YA (young adult) book, not an MG (middle grade) book, and it contains mature content.
This book absolutely blew me away, and I am SO excited to tell you all about it! Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me chronicles the life of Frederica "Freddy" Riley. Freddy is a high schooler who spends her time Frankensteining old stuffed animals together with her best friend Doodle, hanging out at school with Doodle and fellow friends Eric and Buddy, or working at a lesbian-owned sandwich shop called Gertrude's. Freddy is dating a girl named Laura Dean, and some days, their relationship is picture-perfect. Other days...not so much. Laura Dean has broken up with Freddy 3 times, and she is far from good to Freddy. Yet Freddy gets sucked in to their relationship over and over again and pulled further away from the things she cares about. It takes the help of a mystic called the Seek-Her, an online advice columnist named Anna Vice, and a shocking revelation about her friends for Freddy to see that maybe her relationship with Laura Dean isn't all it's cracked up to be.
In case I haven't been perfectly clear up to this point, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me is one of the most perfect, most original, most stunning books I've read in my entire life. You might think that's an exaggeration, but it's not. There's so much I could say here, but first I want to ask something: how many books have you read that show what the middle of a relationship, not the beginning and not the end, is actually like? Count them. I can't think of a single one that zeroes in on this time, which is why this book is so starkly unique. This book isn't about Freddy falling in love with Laura Dean, and it's not about Freddy breaking up with Laura Dean and having to put herself back together. It's about what happens when you are already with someone, when you desperately want them, but they aren't good to you, and as you get sadder and more desperate, you aren't good to others. Freddy's relationship with Laura Dean is completely toxic, and we see all of the tricks and "tactics" Laura Dean (intentionally or not) pulls out to make Freddy feel like she's the only one who understands her and to keep her close in her own desperate way. I've seen people in these sorts of almost-abusive relationships myself, and the red flags practically pour off of Laura Dean. Yet, we get why Freddy struggles to see them. She isn't clueless, but she's a person, and pretty much any person can fall victim to these sorts of manipulative tactics and feel like they need the person who is manipulating them. Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me is a reminder to readers that these behaviors, these tricks Laura Dean uses, are not okay, and we have to keep our eyes peeled for them, even if it hurts. It's an incredibly deep and wise premise, and one that all of society, not just YA readers, needs to see.
You might think after all that that this book is sad, and it's not exactly joyous, but there's so much to love and be excited—even giddy—about in this book! First of all, this book is probably the most LGBTQIA+-friendly book I've ever read. Ever. There is almost-infinite LGBTQIA+ representation here! Freddy and Laura Dean are two girls dating, Eric and Buddy are two boys dating, Vi (I'll explain who she is) isn't straight, nor is Mo (I won't explain who she is). Freddy works at a sandwich shop called Gertrude's where I'm pretty sure all of the sandwiches are named after famous lesbians! There's normalizing the LGBTQIA+ world, and then there's Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me. The book also strikes a great balance between letting its LGBTQIA+ aspects fall into the background, to allow Freddy's relationship with Laura Dean to take center stage, and ensuring that the depth and gravity of the LGBTQIA+ experience is far from ignored.
The characters in Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me are just wonderful as well! Freddy is wise and thoughtful—instead of narration from her, we see computer windows of the emails she keeps writing to Anna Vice, the advice columnist, throughout the story, providing an interesting way of looking into Freddy's world. Freddy's best friend, Doodle, is awesome as well—she's a manga-reading, Dungeons-and-Dragons-playing, technophobic girl who, along with Freddy, goes to thrift stores, finds old stuffed animals and dolls, and stitches their various body parts together into darkly hilarious Frankenstein's-monster-esque creatures! Doodle definitely deserves her own sequel. (Speaking of unnerving humor, the creatures also gossip to each other when people aren't looking.) And I also have to give a shout-out to Vi, a girl who Freddy has an awkward encounter with but then befriends. Vi has some truly wonderful lines—I wish I was the sort of person who said things like, "Well, I was about to go get a ridiculously overpriced waffle and some coffee. Wanna join me?"
The art in this book is so good that I gave it its own paragraph so you wouldn't miss my comments on it. In case you can't tell from the cover, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me has absolutely gorgeous illustrations by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell. The style is part-manga, part-beautiful-painting in every frame (a level of detail I've only seen matched in Queen of the Sea by Dylan Meconis). The layouts—montages, full-page spreads, and more—are wonderful and evocative. The color scheme—black, white, and pastel pink—is gorgeously used as well; instead of using pink as an accent in every frame, it is used sparingly to draw the eye to particular objects or people. The illustrations also give us a great look at the wonderful world Freddy and the other characters inhabit; if that world is based at all on a real place, take me to that place ASAP! You will absolutely get swept away in the beauty of these illustrations; that's probably why I stayed up late to finish reading this book!
One final thought. One of the biggest flaws a relationship can have is one person needing the other person at all times. We definitely see that in Freddy and Laura Dean's relationship: Laura Dean is never there for Freddy, so when she is, Freddy doesn't want to miss it and pulls away from her friends. This pulling away causes Freddy to not know about a shocking, awful secret one of her friends is keeping for far too long. This secret is one I've never seen in a YA novel, even though it is unfortunately something that is far too common in our world. It's not violent or terrifying, but I'm still including a massively-spoiler-laden trigger warning here if you are concerned about it. Rest assured, though, that it is handled beautifully and with gravity in its own right, further cementing this book's status as a classic.
At the end of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, we finally see the advice columnist Anna Vice's response to Freddy. Her advice is truly stunning; it's not obvious at all, yet it's something all of us need to know. I won't tell you all of it, but one piece stuck with me, which I will now quote: "Love should never take from you." That is a phrase that we should all carry with us, in lockets, in tattoos, on T-shirts, and etched into our minds and hearts. That one phrase could do so much good in the world if we all knew it and listened to it. "Love should never take from you." Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me isn't just a book, it's a life-changing experience. It's gorgeous art you'll get swept away in, it's fun characters you'll love and root for, it's tons of LGBTQIA+ content, and it's the best relationship advice you'll ever get. This book has cemented its place as one of my favorites of all time, and I urge you to read this book, and watch as it makes you realize things you never thought you would learn from a book.
Update (11/30/2020): My rating is: Stunning!