Somebody call Nicholas Sparks! Cue the rainstorm and contempo-schmaltz soundtrack! A woman has left her husband and gone off on a quest to find herself. Roll out the picturesque settings, dig up some quirky side characters and summon the Second-Act Prince Charming — it's time for One Of Those Stories.
But wait — actually, it isn't. The rather astonishing achievement of Étienne Davodeau's new graphic novel is that, despite telling a tale that screams "Lifetime movie," it's actually both surprising and unique.
True, Lulu Anew features a long-married mother of three who leaves it all behind to go on a journey of self-discovery. It includes sex as a form of spiritual rejuvenation and, yes, a few quirky side characters.
(When, oh when, are we going to see some plodding, run-of-the-mill side characters? Bring on the boring side characters!) Lulu Anew's setup is pure kitsch — so how does this book work so well?
A big part of the answer comes down to age. As in: Middle. Lulu has wrinkles, eye bags, a muffin top and permanently untidy hair. Her face isn't all that pretty, either. In short, she's anything but a romantic figure, though she looks much more like a real wife and mother than the actresses who appear in women-centric movies. Society has done such a good job of policing the aesthetics of romance, simply making the heroine plain is enough to shake up this kind of tale.
And Lulu's new guy, Charles? He's even less prepossessing than she is. He's bald! With a gut! And unfortunate sideburns, and bristles on his pate! No, not romantic at all.
Instead of a "meet cute" moment, this couple has a "meet weird." Lulu is away from home, interviewing for a job that doesn't work out, and winds up wandering aimlessly on the beach. When she first encounters Charles, lying on his back on some wet rocks, she thinks he might be dead. But once the two start talking, "immediately, our Lulu knows something's going to happen with that guy. And that she'll let herself go along with it." Soon they're strolling arm in arm up the seashore.
The narrator is one of a Greek chorus of friends who have come together — it's not clear where or when — to exclaim at Lulu's choices and speculate about her fate. They're a comfortable group, middle-aged like Lulu. (Davodeau's style is so well-suited to older characters that he actually seems to get a bit confused when he turns his pen to Morgane, Lulu's 16-year-old daughter.) The group takes turns recounting how one got a call from Lulu, another went to see her (because ultimately her flight from ordinary life doesn't take her that far) and another intervened when her textbook-horrible husband announced he'd quit his job, too.
The impact of the "chorus" is subtle but profound. The benevolent voices of Lulu's friends — and, occasionally, their benevolent spying — injects a rueful shrug of authorial self-awareness. Even the people from Lulu's old life agree with the reader that her quest is a bit melodramatic. As a result, when extraordinary things do happen — as when Lulu tries to steal an 85-year-old woman's purse, then winds up staying with her — they feel perfectly organic.
The one thing that clunks slightly is Davodeau's depiction of class. Charles has two brothers, and the three men's hair (shaggy, where they have it) and jobs (looking after a closed trailer park) put them in a lower class than Lulu, a onetime office worker. The characters don't seem to notice the difference; it's as if it simply doesn't exist. That feels more like wishful thinking on the author's part than anything else in the book. (Well, that and Lulu's first night with Charles, when she and the three guys pile into the same trailer to sleep. Even the rudderless Lulu wouldn't throw caution to the wind quite that drastically.)
Lulu Anew is different from the typical women's-movie scenario in another way: It doesn't end with the Prince. Instead, increasingly, Lulu's account of herself changes. At the beginning of the book she tells a new acquaintance, "Sometimes, I try to imagine what's good that'll happen to me in the years to come, and I can't think of anything." And at the end? It's not what you'd expect — it's something new.
Etelka Lehoczkyhas written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.