CALLING DR LAURA
By Nicole J Georges
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 260 pages
reviewed by Amelia Moulis
Nicole J Georges’ Calling Dr Laura, is an acerbic and intelligent addition to the graphic memoirs of 2013. It catalogues Georges’ troubled upbringing and her subsequent quest for love and stability in her relationships, and indeed her life at large. Georges enters this story through her first girlfriend, who takes Georges to a psychic, inadvertently uncovering a deep family secret: the psychic insists that Georges’ father – whom she was told died of colon cancer when she was a baby – is in fact alive. Although this is the ‘hook’ of the story, it is important to emphasize that this is actually not the driving force behind the storyline. It takes many years for Georges to share this information with anyone, let alone confront her mom about it. In the meantime, Georges meanders between cross-sections of her mom’s abusive relationships, the string of ‘father figures’ shaping her upbringing, Georges’ own inability to process stress and emotion, her struggle to establish a family, and the faulty dynamics of her lesbian relationships. But underneath this is the constant tension of when, or if, Georges can confront her mother about her sexuality and the circumstances of her father’s absence from her life.
It is both fascinating and frustrating that the book is only tangentially about Georges’ father and the fleeting Dr Laura – a radio talk show host who joins an orchestra of people unloading bad advice onto Georges. Partly due to these tangential undertones, the links between themes can often be vague. There remains the feeling that Georges’ tendency to ‘check out’ like a fainting goat in real life has translated onto the page, obscuring her capacity to connect herself more deeply to how she’s telling her story, and thus draw clearer connections for the reader. Another consideration here is that the episodes in this book began as shorter comic strips, possibly contributing to the undertone of disconnection. That said, themes of love and belonging are undeniably present. Each scene builds well upon the last to paint a landscape of Georges’ repressed character and warped notion of family, and the aforementioned vagueness can often become an intriguing coercion, driving the reader onto the next page. Certainly this makes Calling Dr Laura rewarding on subsequent reads.
Regardless of any struggles to connect different storylines, when Georges delves into memories of her childhood, the pages come alive. Georges is able to pare down the genre’s susceptibility to stories of self-absorption as she gazes unflinchingly at episodes of intense trauma. Georges truly utilizes the form’s potential here, drawing scenes from her childhood in fairly simplistic, stark black and white lines as opposed to the grey wash of contemporary scenes.
Georges’ lettering is also a visual spectacle whereby different techniques of writing provide aesthetic wonderment and further compliment the main ideas presented. She uses calligraphy on scrolls when introducing people or situations, childlike printing during flashbacks, aureate swirls for flowery speech, and textbook extracts to impart background information.
In many ways, Georges strays from the stereotypical mining of family history for conventional memoir material, and this is a commendable highlight of Calling Dr Laura. Georges sketches a portrait for the reader of a young woman who is attempting to gain footing in her own life after spending her youth on unsteady ground. It catalogues a move away from history and memory and into the creation of a new, independent future. It is left unclear as to whether or not Georges embraces this future, the lack of conclusion shrouding the end of the story in hopeful discontent, but nonetheless, the honesty and grace of Calling Dr Laura are an enchanting tribute to Georges’ skill as a graphic memoirist.
–September 1, 2013
Amelia Moulis is from Canberra, Australia, but was living in New York for the past year, fulfilling her Creative Writing major at Columbia University. She recently returned to Australia in order to graduate from Monash University in Melbourne, but spends her spare time planning her return to New York.