Frances is an underpaid dressmaker with a terrible boss–until a daring design for a noble client catches the attention of a mysterious royal. That royal turns out to be Prince Sebastian: an ordinary prince by day, secretly the fabulous fashion icon Lady Crystallia by night. Frances and Sebastian become fast friends, but the effort of keeping the secret of Lady Crystallia’s identity begins to take a toll on both of them. Can they find a way to hold onto their dreams and each other, or is this fairy tale doomed to have an unhappy ending?
Well, of course this story has a happy ending, but the journey to it is such a joy that I won’t give away anything more than that. The Prince and the Dressmaker is a gorgeous graphic novel for all ages that swept me off my feet as surely as any Prince(ss) Charming.
One of my favorite things about The Prince and the Dressmaker is the way its queerness defies labels. Is Sebastian a trans girl? Genderfluid? A drag performer? It’s never stated, and it doesn’t have to be. Is Frances straight, bi, or a lesbian for loving all aspects of Sebastian and Lady Crystallia? It’s never stated, and it doesn’t have to be. Are both or either of them aro, ace, or on a gray spectrum? It’s never stated, and it doesn’t have to be! As someone who’s struggled with my own labels quite a bit (understatement of the year), it was such relief to read a book that was joyfully queer but didn’t get bogged down in the details.
Jen Wang’s art is simply terrific. I tend to find comics and graphic novels distracting and hard to read (which is a me problem–my brain just doesn’t seem to work that way), but these illustrations only enriched my experience of the story. Every panel is so colorful, exuberant, distinctive, and all-caps BEAUTIFUL. I wanted to hang them on my wall or get them tattooed on my body or both.
The Prince and the Dressmaker really is a modern-day fairy tale, an instant classic along the lines of Ella Enchanted. It’s a pitch-perfect balance of harrowing and comforting–no matter how bad or sad things got, I always knew I was hurtling toward a happy ending, and the catharsis when I finally got there was so, so sweet. This would be an amazing book for adults and kids to read together for that reason.
If you’re looking for a happily-ever-after to restore your faith in humanity right now (who isn’t?), it would be hard to do better than The Prince and the Dressmaker. I loved this book and I hope you will too. ★★★★★
The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
Originally published in February 2018 by First Second (Macmillan).
After years of debilitating mental illness and insecurity, manga author and illustrator Nagata Kabi had never had sex or her first kiss. Desperate for connection, she makes an appointment at a lesbian escort agency…and the result is this book, a very funny, frank, and moving manga about exactly what it sounds like: her lesbian experience with loneliness.
This is a lightning-fast read (I finished in a short sitting) that will stick with you. I wish the ending had been a little less abrupt–we don’t get a good look at what comes after Nagata’s titular “experience,” which would have made the arc more satisfying to me–but that’s a minor quibble with a fantastic book.
You can read my full review below. Please note that this book has vivid descriptions of what it’s like to live with mental illness (including eating disorders), so if that’s a trigger for you, please read this review and this book with caution.
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Nagata Kabi (translated by Jocelyne Allen)
publisher: Seven Seas Entertainment (distributed by Macmillan)
U.S. publication date: 2017
length: 152 pages
Here I am, twenty-eight years old. I’ve never dated anyone, never had sex–and on top of that, never had a real job. It’s June 2015, the middle of the day. And I’m face to face with a woman from a lesbian escort agency.
–from My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Nagata Kabi
I first noticed My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness when it appeared in NPR’s 2017 book concierge. I don’t read much manga (I don’t read many American graphic novels and comics either), so I set the recommendation aside. But after finally making the time for it, I can state definitively that–even if you don’t like manga–if you like heartfelt and funny stories about queerness and/or mental illness, you’ll love this.
The manga starts right in the middle of its faux-lurid inciting incident: the author in bed at a love hotel with a lesbian escort. But Nagata Kabi quickly turns the sexy image on its head by zooming in on her trichotillomania-induced bald spot, her cutting scars, and extreme nerves.
She’s not a pornographic idea of a lesbian, or even the less-fetishized but still idealized version of a lesbian that typically appears in media. She’s awkward and messy and very, very real. This isn’t surprising on its own terms, since Nagata is telling her own true story, not writing fiction. But it is surprising given how little cultural room lesbians (and other queer women) are given to be anything less than stunningly beautiful and perfect.
It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with images of sexy queer women or power femmes or badass butches. (My love of Charlize Theron’s character in Atomic Blonde is proof!) Straight people have loads of idealized standards around sex to live up to, too.
But because there are so few representations of lesbians to begin with, this kind of offbeat and specific (rather than archetypal) representation is especially important.
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is packed with jokes (including plenty of the visual gags manga is known for), but there’s a strong undercurrent of sadness in all of them. Nagata has dealt with debilitating mental illness since leaving high school, and her experiences not being able to get a “real” job and feeling like a disappointment to her family were so relatable it hurt.
As much as My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is about, well, lesbian experience, it’s just as much about disability. And this disabled lesbian appreciated that very much.
Like I said at the top of this review, I don’t read much manga, so it’s hard to place this in the context of genre conventions around length and arc. So, those of you who do read manga, please be gentle with me if I’m missing the point here. But my one complaint about this book is the abruptness with which it ends.
But if you’re looking for a standalone read, or you also didn’t know about the sequels, the final scenes of this warm, big-hearted manga might leave you a little bit cold.
I gave this to my wife to read as soon as I was finished with it because I couldn’t wait to talk about it. Not only did we both find it immensely fun and entertaining, it also sparked a great conversation between us about love and loneliness and mental health and identity. I hope it sparked those same conversations for others as well.
In its vulnerability, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is powerful.
I want more stories like this one–starting with Nagata’s My Solo Exchange Diary sequels. ★★★★☆
I purchased my own copy of My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness and was in no way compensated for this review.
I publish book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.
I’m not sure how I missed this news when it was announced earlier, but it turns out Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale is getting a graphic novel adaptation. It hits shelves tomorrow and looks absolutely gorgeous: head over to io9 to see the exclusive images from behind this edition’s enigmatic cover.
Mild spoilers for the original novel below. I’m not spoiling the ending of Offred’s story, but I will be discussing details of the novel’s structure.
I am fascinated by adaptations of The Handmaid’s Tale because, in typical Margaret Atwood fashion, the original novel had such an unusual format. At the end of the novel, we discover that Offred had been telling her own story via cassette tape, and that we had been reading the “transcripts” of these tapes as collected by historians.
I’ve always thought that this detail is what made The Handmaid’s Tale so haunting. In the epilogue, the horrifying events we experienced through Offred’s eyes in Gilead are being dissected, sympathetically but distantly, by academics hundreds of years in the future, in a similar fashion to how many people discuss horrifying events like the Spanish Inquisition or the transatlantic slave trade today.
It’s also a detail that loses some of its magic as soon as we get visuals, whether that’s via a graphic novel or hit TV show. You can’t exactly transmit images via audio, so it’s hard to maintain the cassette tape conceit. That gives the story a myopic immediacy that I don’t love.
Despite that gripe, which I realize is pretty pedantic–I just love that original ending so much–I’m very interested in the graphic novel. I sometimes struggle to read graphic novels because my eyes just can’t seem to follow the panels correctly, but the panels previewed over at io9 seem crisp and deceptively simple in a way that I find really appealing.
The graphic novel’s art and adaptation are by Canadian artist Renée Nault, who chose not to watch Hulu’s TV adaptation in favor of forging her own visual style and version of the story. That also appeals to me, since I thought the TV show had some weird plot holes (its refusal to engage with racial inequality in a far right society like Gilead being the biggest one, I thought) and was definitely too violent for me to stomach onscreen.
My personal copy of The Handmaid’s Tale is a yellowed, battered, much-thumbed trade paperback that reflects my love of this seminal novel in one way: every read and re-read are inscribed on the pages through every dog-ear, taped-up tear, and tea stain.
It looks like the graphic novel is going to reflect my love in another, equally important way: it turns a beloved book into an art object, something to be not only read, but admired page by page.
I think I’ll be heading to the bookstore for a copy when it drops tomorrow, March 26.
What do you think of this graphic novel adaptation? Are you excited, or do you have reservations? What do you think of Renée Nault’s art style? (I think her work looks a little bit like the illustrations you see in children’s books and especially children’s Bibles, which I think is an intriguing choice for the material.)
This short-‘n’-sweet comic book guide to they/them pronouns has two simple goals in mind–to educate people about they/them pronouns, and to encourage the use of gender neutral language in general–and it accomplishes those things breezily and effectively. I’m nonbinary myself, and while none of the information here was new to me, it was presented with admirable precision and concision. I wholeheartedly recommend A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns as a toolbox and source of friendly validation for trans and nonbinary folks and their allies.
A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns will be released on June 12th, 2018. You can read my full review below.
A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson
publisher: Limerence Press (an imprint of Oni Press)
publication date: June 12, 2018
length: 64 pages
cover price: $7.99
I came out as nonbinary in 2015. I distinctly remember how that felt: how afraid I was, how exhausted I was, but also how hopeful I was that I could finally live out an important part of myself authentically. For months, I pushed at friends and family members to remember. Please don’t call me a woman. Please don’t use “she”; please use “they” instead.
Unfortunately, outside of my very innermost circle, none of it stuck–and between being a busy student and a person with multiple disabilities, I just didn’t have the energy to keep correcting people. My feelings haven’t changed–I’m still a nonbinary person, and I’m happiest when people refer to me using they/them pronouns–but it’s not something that gets acknowledged in my day-to-day life anymore.
That’s why A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns is so refreshing: it’s a 64-page comic book that can be read in less than an hour, and its breezy, no-nonsense tone treats a future in which gender-neutral language prevails as a given instead of a distant dream. That’s a much-needed hopeful message for nonbinary people. It’s also a palatable one for the legions of friendly-but-ignorant people who struggle with gender-neutral language, even if they aren’t hostile to it: this book is a cheerleader that says, yes, you too can do it!
In fact, what I appreciated most about the book was that it simply doesn’t acknowledge the bigots. Far too many educational resources about trans and nonbinary people take a sweeping, self-important approach that simply tries to do too much at once. Changing the mind of someone who’s virulently transphobic is maybe impossible, and it’s certainly something that can’t be done in the space of a brief and affable comic book, so the authors choose not to try. The book is clearer and better for it.
A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns also walks an admirable line of providing information without presenting itself as an unimpeachable authority. It’s quick to offer general definitions and cheat-sheets while also explaining that there are as many ways to be nonbinary as there are nonbinary people. It offers suggestions, like encouraging businesses to train staff to use gender-neutral language (cutting down on erroneous “sirs” and “ma’ams”), without insisting that those suggestions are inherently solutions.
Also, smartly, the book encourages people to err on the side of gender-neutral language not just for the sake of nonbinary people (who are a small but growing slice of the population, after all), but also to create a more equal world where gender matters less in general. It’s an argument I wish more trans and nonbinary advocates would make.
I’m confident that I can attribute all these good qualities to the fact that the book is spearheaded by an actual nonbinary person who uses they/them pronouns: Minneapolis cartoonist Archie Bongiovanni. (You may recognize their work from the Autostraddle Saturday morning cartoon, Grease Bats.) It’s cowritten with their cisgender (non-transgender) male friend, Tristan Jimerson, meaning the book can speak for nonbinary people and allies alike.
Of course, it’s not all perfect: I’m not a huge comics person, and though the comics format makes the book feel breezier and easier to read, I would have preferred plain text. (That’s 100% just because I’m boring, but I figured I’d note it anyway.) The jokes are on the corny side and a few don’t quite land. Most of all, because nonbinary identity tends to be so unique and personal to each individual, there were a few points in the book that rubbed me the wrong way since they didn’t ring quite true for me–a problem that cis readers likely won’t have.
Overall, A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns fills a necessary niche with aplomb. It’s cheap to buy (just $7.99) and quick to read, and I recommend it highly, especially for educational and professional spaces looking to do trainings on this topic or just looking to keep resources on their shelves.
If you’re a nonbinary person looking for validation and a toolbox–or a cis person who’s looking to be a better, more supportive friend to the nonbinary community–this book is for you. 4/5 stars.
A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns is currently available for pre-order and will be released on June 12th, 2018.
I received this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.