Courtney Williams's Reviews > French Milk

French Milk by Lucy Knisley
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Jun 29, 12

bookshelves: kindle
Read in June, 2012

Book 14/52 for 2012, review cross-posted to my blog.

I've tried to like Lucy Knisley's work; really, I have. My main issue has always been that, while she often states that she's going to explore an concept and make meaningful observations, she rarely delivers. For example, her Kickstarter-funded Here at Hogwarts comic promised to be "about our experience [going to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park], and how Harry Potter as a cultural phenomenon has shaped fan society, British/American consumerism, literature and our own lives", but turned out to be more of a "then I did this then I did that oh and we discussed this important issue but I'm just going to mention the fact we did and not give any details YAY BUYING STUFF" affair. I know it's a travelogue, not an academic paper, but a little substance - particularly if it's a promise you exchanged for seven thousand dollars' worth of pre-orders that paid for a glorified holiday - never goes amiss!

Sadly French Milk doesn't depart from this disappointing pattern. It's a travelogue of Knisley's month in Paris with her mother, a joint twenty-second/fiftieth birthday present, predominantly focusing on the food she ate. While the back cover promises a great exploration of the mother/daughter relationship, the challenges of young adulthood and French culture, the reality is far more shallow, and actually quite distasteful at points. I do wonder if some of the reviewers only read the cheesy (pun unintended) final page, which makes the rest out to be far more than what it is.

The book started annoying me on the very first page with this gem: "I started smoking to prepare for smoky Parisian cafés". Maybe this is the bitterness of an asthmatic who's had one too many trips into town spoiled by people blowing cigarette smoke in her face speaking, but it made me take an instant dislike to her. You can take up smoking, but you can't take a basic French course?

She then goes from complaining about being "too poor" to afford a Vespa to showing off her Christmas presents, including a new DSLR camera - a "little present" (emphasis mine) because of the holiday. What planet was she living on? I understand that if you can afford these things then there's no reason you shouldn't, but it makes me so angry when rich people fail to acknowledge their privilege, are oblivious to it or, even worse, pretend that it doesn't exist or that their successes are nothing to do with being lucky. I know enough people like that in real life, thanks!

I make an effort not to dismiss anyone's troubles as whining, since I know depression can manifest itself as such, but it's hard not to in this book's case. Reading about the execution of Saddam Hussein she comments, "the world news is too harsh in its stark intrusion on our Parisian holiday", then says some especially nice cookies mean "humanity [has been] redeemed". Curious how that works when a free, all-expenses-paid holiday to Paris didn't make her stop whining about wanting to have sex with her boyfriend, not fitting into shoes causes a strop and the Moulin Rouge not living up to her expectations made her "depressed" - I hate when that word is trivialised by people who think their non-problems are comparable to serious mental illness.

Her air of superiority is pretty obnoxious too, whether she's looking down on "the idiots at my school" or being "shocked by how ugly and huge Americans can be". She seems to put herself in a category above mere tourists, which is odd considering how she doesn't really explore beyond the tourist attractions, interact with Parisians or even bother to learn French. This is illustrated by an encounter with a group of American students leads her to wrinkle her nose at their "Pringles, Oreos and Seventeen magazines", their "talking loudly" and "their conversation [...] full of 'likes'" (because students living abroad should never enjoy home comforts... or talk). Even worse is an incident on the plane home: Knisley and her mother were asked to stop watching a DVD without headphones because people were trying to sleep, and responded by having a conversation loud enough to be annoying. She actually says, "take that, 'other passengers'"! Interesting how it was distasteful when those American students were doing the same in a much less rude fashion. Also, if interviews with her are anything to go by, she isn't innocent of crimes against "like".

I'm only a little younger than Knisley was when she took her trip, so any excuses regarding her age don't fly by me. It has been said that I'm a bit too mature for my age, but I do think Knisley was especially immature for hers. She mentioned watching "Arrested Development" a few times, which is nothing if not apt. Treating youth as a get-out-of-jail-free card with regards to published works is something that irritates me anyway - if a book is published, it should be held to the same standards regardless of the author's age. Age especially shouldn't be cited to absolve a grown woman of her responsibility to not act like a brat.

There were a few other examples of her immaturity. Her weak defence of eating foie gras, along the lines of "being force-fed to death is a relatively pleasant way to go", irritated me quite a bit. If you're going to do something that's morally questionable, at least own that decision without attempting to spin it into kindness via inaccuracies. (Poor logic is another pet hate of mine.) She mentions her favourite painting, Courbet's very-NSFW "L'Origine du monde", but doesn't give any reasons why she likes it beyond a "tee hee" - she even looks for it in the wrong museum at first. For all her posturing about Oscar Wilde being a huge inspiration, she doesn't really talk about why she admires him so much (she also misquotes Wilde's last words). Her shallow response to seeing the film "Marie Antoinette" contrasts with the disapproving French people sharing the cinema with her: "it did what I wanted it to do: be pretty, and fuel my imagination of what it might have been like at Versailles at that time". Again this response wasn't explored at all - I can instantly see a comparison with her opinions about Paris in general. There was very little exploration of the difference between the real Paris and the idealised, Americanised version - except, that is, where it could be complained about. Most of the book is spent buying stuff, which made her angst over money feel disingenuous - what happened to being too poor to afford a Vespa?!

Another thing: for saying Knisley has degrees in cartooning, she's not especially good at it. I only counted one especially nice picture. The food pictures in particular are often indistinguishable without a label and her cartoon self looks nothing like her in real life. The writing isn't very compelling either. It may just be me, but I don't think it's a coincidence that my favourite comics artists don't have degrees in any form of art. I guess it ties in with my concerns about creative writing courses - while the feedback, deadlines, prompts and connections are obviously valuable, it won't turn a mediocre writer into a great one (I have first-hand experience of this), and an aspiring writer may be better served by a course that trains them to think in a way that transcends their own work (I can be pretentious too!).

There wasn't much to recommend this book. At least one huge bonus of this being traditionally published was that it didn't contain quite as many spelling mistakes as Knisley's work usually does - I understand some people have difficulty with that, but that's why you get a more orthographically-inclined friend to look over important documents before you put them online or sell them to people.

I spent most of French Milk spotting opportunities for depth and growth and being disappointed when it didn't surface. I would have liked some actual exploration of their relationship (apparently the book's title is a reference to mother's milk, another empty affirmation), as well as some examination of her obvious privileges beyond blaming "feeling" like a spoiled brat on being an only child. Even a bit of Paris-related musing beyond "ooh pretty", "nom nom nom" and "not all Frenchmen seem very nice" (the last being a direct quote) would have sufficed. It didn't even make me want to crave French food or a trip to Paris. I don't really think the book's quality merits the opportunities it was given: Knisley's mother being able to publish her book, making it easier to pass onto bigger publishing houses - not when there are more talented cartoonists and story-tellers out there.

It must be fun having other people pay for your holidays and then getting paid to document them (actually, I can vouch for that, having received £100 for an article on my EUCYS prize trip to CERN!), but it does not necessarily a good book make, particularly when the author has some serious growing up to do. Knisley's Twitter feed tells me she's just returned from a trip to Tanzania and is working on a travelogue (she's also currently in South Korea and went on a cruise earlier this year). I hope to goodness she's done a better job of it this time and has gained a little more self-awareness in the years since French Milk was created. This is one diary that would have benefited from staying locked.
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