My first inclination is to write that this graphic novel is a fantastic representation of the immigrant experience but, although I've never actually said or written that phrase immigrant experience, it immediately feels to me like a cliché and too much like slapping a label on the novel.
It is about being an immigrant to the United States, but it's also about sex and love and friendship and illusions and reality and being a single mother while dealing with all of these things.
Penguin gave me the opportunity to read Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel, and it's a graphic novel that reminds me of why I love these books (and also why some of them I pick up just don't match up with my graphic novel preferences). As best I can tell, Lena Finkle is, in fact, a novel, not a memoir, but given the character's background and physical appearance in comparison with the author's appearance and background, I wondered throughout the narrative how much of the story is fiction and how much of it may be memoir. I typically prefer these graphic memoirs over the strictly fiction novels.
It is, with certainty, though, presented as a fictional novel. Lena is an immigrant from Russia, twice married and divorced with two daughters. She's still in love with her high school boyfriend back in Russia, and a longtime friend advises her she's had too few lovers and needs to get out in the world to better understand men and dating. She dives into online dating but the man she falls in love with (The Orphan) is one she meets on a train. He's reading a short story by Bernard Malamud about a man, Leo Finkle, who hires a marriage broker to find him a wife. The broker claims to have an "entire barrel" of eligible potential brides. This is where the title of the graphic novel comes from: the men Lena dates comprise her own magic barrel.
<the next two paragraphs may be minor spoilers>
As a reader, I really couldn't see what Lena saw in The Orphan, but isn't this often how it works? We love our girlfriends, think we understand them, and are baffled at the men they choose. However, this lack of insight didn't stop me from empathizing with her when her heart is broken. Her obsession with what happened is represented graphically with an injured duckling, a wounded and confused creature who can't stay away from the object of her affections, even as she sees he's just hurting her more, even as she sees it's hopeless.
There's a scene of a conversation between Lena and The Orphan in which The Orphan tells her a story from his childhood. While reading the novel, I immediately withdrew from this scene, as I - and likely anyone who reads it will do the same - instantly recognized the story as taken from an old (real-life) movie. At the time, I thought that maybe Ulinich just used this scene from the movie believing readers wouldn't recognize it as such, but I've since re-evaluated its purpose. Lena herself never recognizes this story for what it is, but because the reader does, we can how The Orphan uses her, how he recognized her naiveté as an immigrant who may not have seen such a well known American movie as a way to manipulate her emotions. I wish I'd realized this while actually reading the book, as it likely would've colored everything I read thereafter.
Artistically, my favourite thing about the images in Lena is how Ulinich represents the protagonist's past with rawer, cruder sketches, while the contemporary story is presented with more elegant drawings. So even when there's a flashback within the same page, the reader can easily distinguish the time period.
I enjoyed this graphic novel so much; I'm disappointed to see that Ulinich's first novel was not a graphic one. But the story itself was strong enough to consider her debut, and I'll certainly look forward to her next illustrated novel (or memoir!)