Renowned author Emilie Buchwald once said, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.” In our series Book Reports for Adults, we hope to make up for all those parents who turned on Seinfeld instead.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

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Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Why You Should Read Fun Home: Because if you’re a nerd who understands the world through books, Fun Home is the song of your people.

Book Size: Small. It’s a graphic novel, so there’s not a whole lot of text, but the pictures are full of secrets and worth studying.

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The Book Report, and What I Learned:

The Plot, Nearly Spoiler-Free:

At the end of her first year of college, Alison Bechdel finally gathers the courage to mail the most important letter of her life. She’s coming out of the closet, and she wants her parents back in rural Pennsylvania to know.

Alison assumes the news will be shocking to her parents, but as it turns out, she’s the one who’s in for a shock. Her parents write back to tell her two things: first, that her father is gay, and second, that being gay has ruined his life. Between his loveless marriage to a woman and a scandal with a younger man that made the papers, he’s been wishing desperately to be straight for decades — which is probably the only reason Alison was born.

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The news throws Alison for a loop, but, really, it’s a relief.

It explains so much: her parents’ miserable relationship, her strange childhood, the rumors and whispers that surround her father, and, most of all, his obsession with fixing things that seem broken or ugly. She’s always known the conservative small town where her father spent his whole life made him crazy, but, at last, she really knows why.

For the first time in her life, Alison and her closed-off, tyrannical father finally understand one another. For the first time in her life, they can be honest with one another. For the first time in her life, they have something in common.

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It’s all very beautiful, until a few months later, when her father kills himself.

Now, Alison is stuck trying to figure out from scratch the life that she thought she already understood. Who was her father? Who was her mother? How did the secret that they kept together twist their lives, and how did it bring them closer together?

And, if Alison is following the path that her father laid before her, does that mean that she is barreling toward the same ending?

 

The Characters:

Bruce, the father. A handsome, serious intellectual with a bad temper and the most hardcore perfectionist streak you ever saw, Bruce is a piece of work – with more in common with his daughter than either of them would like to admit. Trapped in a bad marriage in a backwards town, Bruce channels a lot of his frustration into his house, which he is constantly restoring, redecorating, and screaming at his children to keep clean.

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The book gets its name from the funeral home he owns, a family business that keeps him trapped not 20 miles from where he was born. His strongest trait is unhappiness, which he radiates in every direction. Think Walter White if he started directing episodes of This Old House instead of making meth.
 
Alison, the daughter. A secretive, idiosyncratic tomboy, Alison inherited her father’s single-mindedness, intelligence, and impossibly high standards for herself. If anything saves her from his fate, it will be her commitment to honesty; to finding and telling the truth, especially about herself (which is why she’s writing a memoir in the first place).

That, really, is the biggest thing that separates these two characters: Alison may be gay like her father and smart like her father and a loner like her father, but she would sooner die than put up pretty wallpaper to hide the fact that a house is falling apart.

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The Themes and Ideas:

Literature and Life. One trait all the Bechdels share is their bookishness. The daughter of two English teachers, Alison shares her parents’ introversion and tendency to look at life through the lens of what she’s read.

Really, it’s almost like Alison’s reading list is another character. We watch her bounce around from Homer to Henry James to Oscar Wilde to Marcel Proust trying to find a framework that will help her to make sense of her life. Most of the chapters in are named after books or lines from poems, and half of the important plot points come about because someone was handed the right book at the right time.

The result is one of the best explanations I have ever seen of why we read literature in the first place.

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Again and again, we see Alison come to understand something – we come to understand it ourselves — just because some writer 200 years ago put exactly this weird nebulous thing we’re trying to understand into terms that are not only clear but perfect.

In one of the final chapters, Alison rants about reading Ulysses for the first time and being baffled and infuriated by sentences like:

“what, reduced to their simplest reciprocal form, were Bloom’s thoughts about Stephen’s thoughts about Bloom and about Stephen’s thoughts about Bloom’s thoughts about Stephen?
 
He thought that he thought that he was a jew whereas he knew that he knew that he knew that he was not.”

And yet, when Alison gropes for words to describe her relationship with her father, that’s the sentence structure that she seizes on. It’s the only kind of sentence complicated enough to explain how she feels.

Lit., we come to realize, is just the prereq for life.

Parsing Ulysses is child’s play compared to understanding how to feel about a man you worship and identify with who has hurt your family very badly, but it’s the closest thing to a warm-up any of us are going to get.
 
Icarian Games. On the very first page, Alison introduces us to this grandiose name acrobats use for the game most kids just call “airplane.” That’s the first shot of Alison and her father we see: him lying on the ground and hoisting her into the air, their faces both weirdly serious, balancing and considering one another.

This mirror image — father and daughter looking one another in the face, wobbly and precarious but still close — is, really, what Fun Home is all about.

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The more we learn about Alison’s life, the more see echoes of her father’s life in it. It’s in all of the things they share that go beyond being gay: stubbornness, curiosity, artistic skill, intelligence, loneliness, a love of fancy cufflinks. In the same way, though, it’s also in Alison’s desperate struggle not to let herself end up in the terrible place her father did, because you can’t vow not to become a man if you don’t understand him very well.

The whole book is one long Icarian game, with everything that the word Icarus implies — the part about a brilliant father helping his child to fly in a way he never could, and the part about crashing violently into the sea.

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TL;DR

Oscar Wilde said all women become their mothers, and that is their tragedy, but no men do, and that is theirs. Sometimes, though, the tragedy is that both of those things happen at once.
 

Part to Quote So People Will Think You’ve Read It:

“What, reduced to their simplest reciprocal form, were Dad’s thoughts about my thoughts about him, and his thoughts about my thoughts about his thoughts about me? He thought that I thought that he was a queer, whereas he knew that I knew that he knew that I was, too.”

 

Side Effects of Reading Fun Home May Include:

Radical honesty, pen envy, and cravings for library books.
 

Further Reading:

If you liked…
 
…books about queer identity, literature, and the way that one can shape the other, try Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. It’s a little less Hemingway and a little more Stan Lee, but both books are really exploring the same thing—the stories that outsiders tell about the world around them and about themselves. Plus, picking a bold, cheesy medium to write about means that Chabon get to include epic same-sex kisses on the roof of the Empire State Building in a thunderstorm, which is always a plus.
 
…books about the trickiness of fatherhood and daughterhood, try Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle. Like Fun Home, it’s the story of a daughter figuring out a father who wasn’t what she wanted but who helped to make her what she might always have been meant to be. Unlike Fun Home, there are a whole bunch of ponies in it.
 
…graphic novels that tell true stories brilliantly, try Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, another graphic memoir about a very unusual childhood. Like Alison, Marjane is a born observer who wants the truth at all costs.

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