Lulu Anew

Lulu Anew by Étienne Davodeau Translation: Joe Johnson Letters: Ortho.
by Étienne Davodeau
Translation: Joe Johnson
Letters: Ortho

The central conceit of the midlife crisis is that it's often used as an excuse to engage in melodrama. The protagonist chucks their stifling responsibilities and rigidly defined social roles in order to indulge in the kind of youthful indiscretions that they’ve generally avoided in the past. Or in more recent stories, as a chance to launch into a personal quest for self-actualization. Throw in some unsympathetic parents, small-minded acquaintances, or an uncomprehending spouse/significant other, and the elements are in place to send the hero on their merry way. The eponymous protagonist of Lulu Anew starts out in the usual pattern. Lulu is a French housewife and mother of three attempting to return to the workforce. But after going through another unsuccessful job interview, something about coming back to her lout of a husband causes her to hesitate. Before long, she's gone on a walkabout to the Coast without any concrete plans and without informing anyone.

If this sounds like the setup for American Beauty or Eat Pray Love, Lulu Anew couldn’t be further away from those predecessors. Unlike her American counterparts, Lulu isn't trapped in some materially comfortable but emotionally hollowed out middle class existence. Affluence is definitely not an issue for her. From all appearances, she needs the money to support her family. And a job would allow her to escape the confines of her claustrophobic domestic situation as a put upon housewife. But Lulu can’t actually afford to run away from home. She only manages to survive by relying on the kindness of strangers.

And unlike Hollywood’s screen idols, there’s nothing glamorous about Lulu. Étienne Davodeau draws in the Franco-Belgian tradition, which grounds the otherwise unlikely story in a naturalistic setting. Most of his adult characters look like they’re at least middle aged, with eye bags, wrinkles, frown lines, and flabby bodies. Lulu herself is hardly the vision of beauty with her flat unattractive features, drab clothes and unkempt hair tied back into a utilitarian knot. There’s an unmistakable working class bearing to Davodeau’s cast. At some point, Lulu acquires a love interest in the form of an ex-con trailer park groundskeeper named Charles. He vaguely recalls a schlubby Harvey Pekar as drawn by Robert Crumb, but with the addition of a pair of unfortunate sideburns. That’s nothing compared to his hairier two brothers who live in the park with him.

Lulu Anew by Étienne Davodeau Translation: Joe Johnson Letters: Ortho.

The book’s other main character is the placid French coastline. Drawn with virtuosity by Davodeau, the setting’s warm orange and cool blue color washes define the overall palette. While the book's page layout uses the twelve panel grid, Davodeau often employs silent action sequences to punctuate the narrative. The further Lulu travels, the more often the panels open up to wide angle shots of the distant horizon. The natural beauty of the landscape beckoning her into a state of wordless introspection as she watches the waves quietly roll onto land.

This tranquil mood keeps the book from wallowing in cheap sentimentality. Lulu doesn’t betray any unambiguous emotions about her rash decision to leave her family such as guilt, remorse, or joy and relief. She doesn’t pursue any unfulfilled ambitions, engage in bucket-list inspired feats of daring, or travel to exotic places. Her interactions with the locals are a lot more low key, and the personal revelations about what drives her come gradually.

The narrative is actually told from the perspective of Lulu’s friends and family. The story begins with several of them gathered around a table at dusk, for reasons only revealed at the end of the book, trying to piece together the events into a cohesive whole. While some convey the fallout from Lulu’s sudden disappearance, one particular friend named Xavier and Lulu’s teenage daughter Morgane supply much of the story’s spine. They’re generally a relaxed group. And their attitude exerts a powerful pull on the book’s mood. While they don’t all necessarily agree with Lulu’s behavior, they approach the events from the standpoint of inquiry rather than of judgement. As the conversation unfolds, each member drops subtle hints about the unhappiness that might have contributed to the commencement of Lulu’s journey.

Regardless of where the reader falls on the wisdom (or lack) of her actions, Lulu Anew taps into a strain of discontent that comes from living a circumscribed life, and the need to occasionally rebel against it by searching for the liminal.

Lulu Anew by Étienne Davodeau Translation: Joe Johnson Letters: Ortho.