Life surges and flows, unstoppable, in Jennifer Hayden's graphic novel The Story Of My Tits. This autobiography may be loosely organized around Hayden's experience of having breasts and losing them to cancer, but it's far more than just a record of the existence of two bumps of flesh. It's also a rebuttal to the forces of illness and early death.
Every page spills over with the stuff of life — friendships and first homes, parents and step-parents, sex and vacations and vegetarian cooking — expressed through loose, light drawings and rampant detail. Hayden has seen death up close in her family and been forced to contemplate her own, and she's shouting back at it with everything she has.
Her book starts when she's still tiny, "happy and stupid and free." Almost immediately, though, she realizes (courtesy of her dad's Playboys) that "the world was going to expect big things of my body." The next decade or so contains a familiar history of too-slow growth, girlish angst and the cruel tyranny of the AA cup. Once she comes to appreciate her breasts, around college, they go and change on her; weight gain boosts them to a stratospheric 38C.
Hayden more-or-less makes peace with her breasts after that, like most women do. But the book doesn't slow down. She cheerfully strays from the curved and perky for a tell-all about her whole life, including the husband she met in college but didn't marry until nearly a decade later. (For the ceremony he wears his work uniform, the tux in which he plays with a wedding band. She's in the Mexican wedding dress she wore to her high school graduation in 1979.) Eventually two kids come along.
There's also cancer. It first casts its pall over Hayden's life when her mother loses a breast to it. A no-nonsense, emotionally constrained woman with a gift for woodwork, Hayden's mother can never seem to find the right size prosthesis for her empty cup. Cancer strikes again some years later, when Hayden's mother-in-law gets it in her lungs. Ultimately there's little the doctors can do. Hayden was clearly almost as close to this woman — a boundlessly joyful careerist who read Gore Vidal — as to her own mother, and the loss is great. Yet another toll is exacted a few years later, when Hayden's stepmother-in-law dies of breast cancer.
In the midst of all this comes Hayden's own ordeal, her loss of both breasts after a diagnosis of ductal carcinoma in situ. Clearly knowing how much has been said and written about breast cancer, she keeps this part of her story tight. Placed alongside dozens of other experiences in this long book, cancer isn't allowed to shove joy, hope and humor offstage. Not that Hayden skimps in relating her cancer experience. Her quirky humor and memory for offbeat details — to say nothing of her occasionally naughty language — keep her account fresh. She tells of making paintings with her breasts the day before her double mastectomy; of being confronted with a fellow survivor's "Frankentits"; of her young daughter addressing her breasts: "Thank you for giving me milk. We'll miss you!"
The only time Hayden stumbles is when she tries to deliver literary themes rather than sticking with what's simple and tangible — a running metaphor she lifts from the overused Thomas Wyatt poem "Whoso List to Hunt" just feels strained. Usually, though, she takes the advice of her most perceptive helpers — and of her own heart — and finds new value in the simplest truths. Grappling with her loss in a therapist's office, she asks, "But how will I be the same person?"
"You won't be the same person," the therapist answers calmly. "But you will go on."
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and Salon.com. She tweets at@EtelkaL.