Ever since I read Relish a couple years ago I’ve been a Lucy Knisley fan. A comic artist who loves travel and food? Sounds like a great person to me. I recently convinced* the library I work at to get her two newest travelogues, An Age of License and Displacement, and I loved them both, particularly the latter, where she battles with selfishness vs. selflessness as she cares for her aging grandparents on a cruise.
I realized, though, that I’d never read her first book and travelogue, French Milk, where she records a month-long trip to Paris with her mother just before her last semester of college. After some digging around to figure out if I could get it from the library, I had a copy sent to me.
You can definitely see a difference in quality between this one and her newest books. There’s more cohesiveness in her current books, a theme or problem she tries to piece together from her experiences. French Milk is a bit more “This happened and I felt this way, then that happened and I felt that way.” Which is fine, I was still engaged, but not as absorbed as when I first read Relish.
Then Knisley hits a point on her trip where she has a panic attack: she’s about to graduate from college, she doesn’t know what she’s going to do with her life, and she’s suddenly overwhelmed with anxiety and depression. And I felt for her.
The couple of years after I first graduated from my undergrad is still a time I look back on with regret. I was writing, but I didn’t seem to be moving forward with getting published** or even improving, I had no sense of community aside from the few college friends I stayed in touch with and my then-boyfriend, and they all lived a minimum of an hour away.*** I was working with the family business, which I did not want to do, but I could not think of what else I wanted or even COULD do for money otherwise. As far as I was concerned, especially during that time, those years were a wasteland, and I spent so much time being anxious, depressed, and crying because I could not stop hating my life.
I realize now, however, that this isn’t exactly abnormal. In your 20s your life takes a huge shift, and I can’t think of many things that really prepared me for it. Maybe getting into college, but that wasn’t something I was ever concerned wouldn’t happen: I got good grades, I was above average for most of the schools I was applying to, I was getting in SOMEWHERE. But getting a good job, having my own life, feeling satisfied with myself — I wasn’t sure about that.
While Knisley is in the middle of all of this, lying on her stomach with storm clouds over her head, she draws her mother, sitting beside her, hand on her back, giving this little piece of wisdom: “This is just what happens in your 20s. Sometimes it’s just like this.”
I never heard anything like that when I was going through my own crisis, I was never given a sense that feelings like this were normal and it was all right that I was going through this and processing it in this way. Not that words like this would have yanked me out of my funk — it doesn’t do so for Knisley, even though they were obviously important enough for her to give the words their own page — but I think hearing something like that would have made me feel less bad about feeling so bad. If that makes sense.
So, conclusion: French Milk is rougher than her other work, but even though I’ve never spent a month in Paris (what a lucky lady, right?) the raw emotions she was feeling at 22 are so close to the state I was in at that age, that I can’t help but love the book, and love her, and feel more connected with the world knowing it’s full of people who react to it like I do.
*”I think we should get this.” “Yeah, okay.” Some complex arguments there.
**Yeah, about that…
***The exception here is a high school buddy, but she was still in college during those two godawful years, so that was only helpful a few months.