Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich has a weird title but is an excellent graphic novel. You could call it a coming of age story where the youth in question is thirty-seven years old. Lena’s first marriage was one of convenience since it got her a green card; her second marriage was horrific but it got her two children. Now divorced, Lena realizes that she’s never fallen in love, or had a wild phase like so many of her New York lady friends. When she was a teen, she had a relationship with a boy in Russia. She’s never cut ties with Alix and after a visit with him during a book tour, she thinks he’s The One. A friend advises that maybe she shouldn’t get ahead of herself and date a few more guys before turning her life upside down. Lena takes this advice with enthusiasm and fills her calendar with OKCupid dates. Although she meets some interesting men, nothing really sticks until she meets The Orphan.
I enjoyed reading Lena’s dating experiment. As someone who was married long before the online dating culture, I find it fascinating. It’s seems both exciting and terrifying. Lena compares it to buying shoes online.
She ends up having a lot of sex, whether or not she actually enjoyed it was questionable. It’s more a part of figuring out what she wants. Even a more experienced friend tells her not to sleep with them all on the first date (not that she listens). I felt like she wasn’t trying to get to know any of the men, rather she was just trying to get through them to some other goal. Then she meets The Orphan. The Orphan (all her dates have nicknames) isn’t an OKCupid date but a guy she meets on the bus. She gets overly attached to him. I cringed through this whole part. I literary shook my head and thought, “No, Lena, no!”
Interspersed throughout are Lena’s memories of her childhood and marriages. She struggles with her immigrant identity. Her parents are always “coming to America” conversely she believes they have arrived. Her past, her life in Russia and a recent immigrant, constantly influences her present relationships.
Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel might be the longest graphic novel I’ve read (362 pages). There’s a lot of text as well as illustration. The drawings are in black and white. Lena’s present is realistically drawn while her memories are more cartoonish. The book seems autobiographical; Anya and Lena look alike, for sure. I’m not certain how much is from the author’s life, and maybe I don’t want to know!
I loved that Lena was a woman my age rediscovering herself, and her willingness to put herself out there without a lot of angst over her age or appearance. She doesn’t change anything about herself physically other than getting her bangs cut (something she does for herself!). She dates men of all ages without moaning, “Oh no, he’s too young! What could he want with an old biddy like me?” (I’m looking at you Stella.) She just gets out there and does it. Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel was funny, touching, and sometimes cringe worthy.
My thanks to Penguin Books for sending me this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.