The story of a deeply unhappy and unfulfilled middle-aged woman — or, more occasionally, middle-aged man — who makes a spur-of-the moment decision to break routine and embark on a journey of self-discovery is a staple of popular fiction.
With few exceptions, these sorts of feel-good stories about vanquishing ennui don't feature compelling, can't-put-'em-down mysteries with life-and-death stakes, which goes a long way toward explaining what makes Etienne Davodeau's Lulu Anew such an unusually suspenseful graphic novel.
It's the story of Lulu, a mother of three, the wife of an alcoholic lout and the center of a large and supportive circle of friends. Her tale begins at a wake at her house, as her friends try to make sense of what exactly transpired to bring them all to the terrace, avoiding going inside, where the body is.
"I can only tell you about what I know about what happened to Lulu," her best friend Xavier begins, and through his narration we learn that Lulu left town for a job interview, failed to land the position — having left the workforce 16 years ago to raise her kids — and finds herself reluctant to return home, apparently relishing this new experience of freedom from her family obligations and her old life.
At the instigation of a stranger, she takes a two-hour ride to the seaside, and there she meets a man, and they begin a sudden, intense affair. Notably, the man is not the hunk of a Terry McMillan book, but an older, schlubbier balding man. Davodeau draws all of the adult characters in an unglamorous, realistic fashion. While it's not impossible to imagine this storyline being one that would inspire a film starring Julia Roberts, Davodeau "casts" his comic with real people: All the men are wrinkled, balding and hairy; all the women are unglamorous
soccer football moms. (Actually, it already has been abapted into a film, in France, starring the glamorous Karin Viard.)
As the days stretch on and Lulu refuses to return home, only occasionally calling friends to assure them she's fine, everyone grows increasingly worried. First Xavier and then Lulu's children come looking for her, but, seeing her happy from afar, they content themselves to mostly just spy on her.
Her 16-year-old daughter Morgane picks up the second half of the story, and tells what becomes of Lulu after she leaves her lover to continue down the coastline, meets an even more unusual new friend in even more unlikely circumstances and, ultimately, how she came back, what happened when she did, and why her friends are now all holding a wake none of them expected to be attending that night.
While this is the book's first time in one volume in English, thanks to publisher NBM, it was originally released in France as Lulu Femme Nue in two parts, the first half (Xavier's half) in 2008, the second (Morgane's) in 2010. The first half was awarded the Prix Essentiel at the 2009 Angouleme International Comics Festival.
Reading it all in one piece like this today, it's easy to see why it earned that honor and several others. There's a universiality to the story, one that begs comparisons to more tired novels and films of the middle-aged, post-epiphany coming-of-age genre, but Davodeau's is such an emotional roller coaster, and so tied to an intense mystery, with readers wondering how the vacation from Lulu's regular life might end in the death they learn of at the very beginning, it transcends its familiar droppings.
That it's told in comics form, of course, has a lot to do with that act of transcendence. Davodeau's artwork is as much a joy to stare at as it is to read, with carefully chosen, almost minimal, delicate linework and warm, organic water-colored colors. It's realistic, but gorgeous, the most mundane visual subject matter — bathroom tile in need of grout, a dirty kitchen, a bus stop — rendered exquisitely.