Gemma Bovery is fed up. She’s fed up with her husband Charlie’s tiny London apartment, fed up with his nagging ex-wife and his horrible children, fed up with the fact that she gave up a promising career for a Simple Life ideal that turned out to be rather grubby. So when she inherits a nice packet of money from her father, she ups stakes and moves to Normandy, a tiny town called Bainville, to live the French ideal. Cheese! Wine! Pastoral life in a cottage! After all, only the French truly know how to live!
Strangely, Gemma’s problems follow her. The inhabitants of the village are boring, unwelcoming, and banal. Even the intellectual boulanger Joubert (the narrator of the novel), who follows her actions rather closely for someone who is merely an interested neighbor, loses charm. What’s the obvious answer? Why of course: she starts an affair with the local noble’s son, spends more than she can afford on clothes and interior decorating, and avoids her dull, matter-of-fact husband. And when things begin to deteriorate, it comes as no surprise.
If this sounds vaguely familiar, it should. Posy Simmonds has created a marvelous graphic novel in Gemma Bovery, a fresh, sharp, modern take on Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The best thing about it (apart from the art, which is spectacular, and the superb colloquial French, which enhances the reading if you speak French and doesn’t hinder understanding if you don’t) is that Simmonds hasn’t allowed Flaubert to clip her creative wings. Gemma Bovery is not Emma Bovary. She’s her own person, a modern woman, with all of the freedom and knowledge that implies, and can choose her own fate. Despite the obvious parallels between the two books, and despite the looming sense of catastrophe, Gemma finds her own path to her destiny.
Don’t miss the details here. The book says as much about French culture and the difficulty of transplantation into a new world as it does about women who read too much (or not enough) as adolescents. One after another, fantasies are born and then must live or die among the dirty dishes, drains, illness, and ex-wives of the real world. In this, Flaubert and Simmonds were in agreement.
This is a relatively quick read, but for a graphic novel, it’s quite text-heavy: the covetous Joubert’s narration goes outside of the normal thought-balloon sorts of text you might think of in, say, Spiegelman’s Maus. I’d love to use this book in a class that was reading Madame Bovary. What they’d make of the comparisons and contrasts I don’t know, but the possibilities seem terrific.