Book Review: Relish, by Lucy Knisley
Great graphic novels, in order to fully take hold of the genre, have to use their pictures just as much as their words to tell the story. Whereas some people might claim having images is a crutch, I would argue that to do it well is just as hard (maybe harder) than writing a novel. Like really good third-person narration, the precise use of images in a graphic novel is wildly underrated and misunderstood. At no point do you want the words and images doing the same work. Rather, you want them to complement each other, strengthen each other as well as the overall story. A great graphic novel is like a two-horse team, and Lucy Knisley seems to get his intuitively.
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen is two parts memoir and one part recipe book, and the farther you read, the more sense this makes. If there is nothing else to take away from Knisley’s story it is that food has indelibly shaped her life. I stopped short of using the word “defined” there because I think it’s the other way around. The stories she tells, which she admits are selective, are dressed in “taste-memories.” Food surrounds her, is infused in her life, but Knisley is impacted vastly more by the people with whom she shares meals than the by meals themselves. She puts it this way in her introduction: “I’m lucky to have grown up with cooks and bakers, eaters and critics, and meals to remember. My memories were formed in conjunction with my palate, collected along with photographs of shared meals from my childhood” (p.2).
This is an important distinction. Had each chapter started with a certain meal, then moved to the story, it could have quickly become formulaic and dull. Food is wonderful, but it isn’t much of a character. Part of what makes Knisley so successful here is that she does just the opposite. Most of the chapters start with story–when her mom moved to the country after getting divorced, traveling abroad, where her parents lived when they were young–and then work the food in slowly. She allows her readers to get to know her characters before layering on the elements of taste she associates with them. Indeed, each chapter ends with a wonderfully illustrated recipe, usually something which came up in the story. The only exception is after chapter 9, which is mainly about croissants. In this case, Knisley gives us a recipe for sangria because “making croissants is HARD” (p.132).
What really kept this book humming for me, though, was the idea I alluded to earlier. In as sublime a way as I’ve seen, Knisley balances her words and pictures throughout. Her spare, simple dialogue and narration pair effortlessly with a whimsical cartoon style. The focus is mainly on the people and food, as it should be, with the panel backgrounds often nothing more than slightly mottled blocks of color. The art has a sense of joyful fullness about it, but it doesn’t overwhelm the reader. Not unlike a good meal, in fact. As a foray into the graphic memoir (read: visual) , this is a great place to start. As a pure piece of storytelling, it is flat-out excellent.