I have picked up this book, read a bit, and put it back down a dozen times in the last year. Not because it isn’t excellent- it most definitely is- but the author’s relationship with her unhappy and distant father is much too similar to mine. This book breaks my heart, and brings up many painful memories for me. But I persisted, and am glad I did.
Author and illustrator Alison Bechdel chronicles her childhood through her early years of college, in a non-linear memoir. The Bechdel family lived in her father’s small hometown of Beech Creek in Pennsylvania, and her father helped run the family funeral parlor. Alison and her younger brothers named the funeral parlor, Fun Home, hence the name of the novel. Her parents were trapped in a loveless marriage, with the father hiding his homosexuality, although as the years wore on his affairs became less and less discreet.
This hiding of his true self shaped him into a bitter perfectionist, whose moods turned his wife into a shell of her former self, and the three children had to forever tiptoe around his outbursts and expectations. When Bechdel enters college, she herself comes out as a lesbian, but has precious little time for her relationship with her father to change and grow with this realization, for her father died soon afterwards in what she suspected was a suicide.
A thread that ran through this book was her father’s love of literature, in addition to Bechdel’s own awakening of her sexuality, that ran parallel to her father’s. References to books such as Ulysses made connections between her and her father, with some overt symbolism that was dark and honest, but a bit forced at times.
The emotionally engaging illustrations were in black and white, and really captured the 1970’s era. Her parent’s grim marriage was subtlety represented, but she also was able to share times of humor and the joys of discovery in her drawings. Some of the illustrations were very graphic, with a sex act and a dead body being drawn in realistic detail, so this book is geared for mature audiences.
Bechdel’s raw autobiography was turned into a musical play that showed on Broadway, and she shared her feelings on that representation of her family in this enlightening nine-panel drawing Play Therapy. That this book, and perhaps the play, can affect people deeply is a testament to the power of family and how it shapes us.