Title: The Undertaking of Lily Chen
Author: Danica Novgorodoff
Genre: Graphic novel / comics
Rating: 2 / 5
Okay, so, beautiful cover, right? Yay a skull, yay undertaking, ghost brides, that sounds good. Graveyards and skeletons, good for my scary fall reading, yes? Unfortunately there was a lot about this book that I didn’t like.
First, I did like the art. There are well over 1,000 panels in here, maybe even more than 2,000. So I know it was quite an…undertaking. And much of the art is beautiful, especially the watercolors. It felt like there were two styles in the book: the watercolor landscapes/animals/plants/buildings and sometimes faces, and then the way that people were drawn, which was very styled and cartoony. I liked the watercolor stuff better and the two styles didn’t feel totally cohesive, but I still thought they worked okay together. Based on the art alone, this would get a a higher rating.
But it’s a story too. And the story… ehh? I thought it was pretty weak. It didn’t have much going for it. It has about as much character development and about as interesting a storyline as one of those three page Grimms’ fairy tales. The characters are cardboard and static, and they felt boring and lazy. With the length of the book, and with so many images, Novgorodoff could have done a lot with her characters. But she chose not to. It keeps the story super simple and easy to breeze through, but it doesn’t leave much to think about. The epigraph was interesting, and everything else in the book was far less so. It pains me to say all that, though, because I know how much effort and time the author must have put into this book.
Also, it’s…a little creepy, and not in a good way. Spoilers ahead… Deshi, the main character, accidentally kills his older brother, the favorite child. His parents, upset, order him to get a corpse bride for the brother’s wedding/funeral. He hires someone to do some grave robbing but thinks the old skeletons aren’t suitable enough and wants a fresher corpse. He runs into a girl who wants to escape her small provincial life and basically as soon as he sets eyes on her he thinks about killing her. There are a few scenes where he tries and fails, and although I questioned his commitment to those attempts, the fact is he takes a knife out and tries. And yet I never got the sense of why he would do that. He was so poorly developed, I didn’t really get his motivation besides “family said so.” Lily is also super underdeveloped; her whole thing is like “I’m a rebel” or something. It came across to me as very stereotypical “spunky girl.” But the worst part is the end when Deshi and Lily decide to ride off together. And we’re supposed to think this is…romantic? Or something? Yeah, sure, he tried to kill her, but they’re, what, together or whatever now, with no real groundwork laid for any kind of attraction or friendship? I mean, they randomly bone once, when Deshi was trying to strangle her to death. She’s asleep and she awakes to him strangling her and this is somehow okay with her and they do it. I mean, on the one hand, if she realized that he was trying to kill her and was like, oh I’m gonna sleep with him to neutralize this situation and then get the fuck outta here the second I can, preferably after disabling him–that would have been pretty cool. But no, she’s just like “I’m waking up because you’re trying to strangle me to death, cool, now let’s fuck.” Not really my thing. It reads like she had no awareness of what he was doing, which doesn’t really make sense. Also when Lily’s dad shows up at Deshi’s parents for the wedding/funeral… no one knows who he is and yet no one confronts him or asks about him or anything. What is that scene about? Made zero sense.
I would probably not recommend this book to many people. The art is just not good enough to counterbalance everything else about it. I would give the author another chance, because maybe she was just trying to write a simple folktale, and the flattening of characters and weirdly objectionable things that are never actually addressed are just par for the course for that type of story. It seems like she may have been trying for a deeper story–the back of the book has blurbs like “beautiful, haunting, and utterly human” (uhhh…?) and “this is a book to ponder” (I mean I am pondering what I didn’t like about it, but one of those things is how basic it is). But it’s hard to tell what the author’s intentions with it were–of course the back of the book is going to have the most grandiose claims. To me it felt lacking and incomplete and just kind of weak. But, maybe working with a different kind of story, she fleshes things out more.