Online Edition: Spring 2005

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Gemma Bovery

Posy Simmonds

Pantheon ($19.95)

by Eric Lorberer

In Gemma Bovery, British author Posy Simmonds offers not only a contemporary send-up of an age-old theme, but a fresh take on the graphic novel as well. Her title character's name obviously recalls Flaubert's Emma Bovary, a coincidence not lost on our narrator Joubert, a small-town baker in Normandy. Gemma, you see, is a Londoner who has emigrated to the French countryside with her husband Charlie, fleeing a romantically unresolved past and dreaming of a place where she could "recreate the atmosphere of a hundred years ago, as if peasants still lived there." Of course, as with the original Madame Bovary, the country isn't all it's cracked up to be, and when she falls into an affair with a younger man, the narrative hurtles toward the closure promised in the book's opening line: "Gemma Bovery has been in the ground three weeks."

One of the most delightful things about Gemma Bovery is that one needn't be a Flaubert scholar to enjoy it: Joubert, fascinated with the parallels between Gemma and the heroine of his countryman's novel ("Everytheeng in thees book, eet 'appened to Gemma!") provides a perfect stand-in for the reader, filling in the blanks as he obsessively follows Gemma through her affair. On the other hand, this is definitely a graphic novel for the literati, filled with rich characters, a complicated plot, multiple narrative voices (Joubert tells the story not only from his point of view but also by accessing Gemma's diaries, while Simmonds deftly weaves in omniscience through letters, maps, translations, etc.), and other devices besides literary allusion.

The excellence of Simmond's construction of this book is particularly noticeable in how she's handled the graphic novel form, which she pushes into an exciting hybrid of cartooning and prose. Each page of this oversized book is an exquisitely designed broadside of sorts, balancing Joubert's eloquent narrative (set in regular type) with traditional comics panels and dialogue suddenly popping in or taking over; charmingly, Joubert speaks with a French accent when he appears as a character in the comic (this is the tale of a lost English woman, after all), or thinks in French while Simmonds translates. Gemma's own script (from her diaries) also commandeers the story at points. And Simmonds's artwork, a blend of European realism and Feifferesque fancy, keeps pace with her text beautifully.

Despite this interplay of voices (and cultures), the formal innovation of the book and its metatextual premise are never ostentatious, but rather always in the service of the emotional core of the narrative. Like the best work in any medium, Gemma Bovery engages both the heart and mind due to the relaxed mastery Simmonds shows in telling her story. This is one graphic novel which can lay claim to having both words in that epithet equally emphasized.

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