Here is what’s less than stellar about Anya Ulinich‘s graphic novel, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel: The title is confusingly clunky, and certain pages feel overstuffed with text. But that’s it! This lavishly illustrated, imaginative, acerbically funny chronicle of a Russian-Jewish divorcee’s expedition into the underworld of OkCupid is, otherwise, near letter- and pixel-perfect.
Ulinich’s main character/alter ego is Lena, an increasingly successful Brooklyn author, mother, and dating novice. Unlike typical rom-com protagonists, she has more layers than a baklava: she’s cynical and naïve, resourceful and helpless, impatient and self-indulgent and also a nurturing mom. She is shaped by her upbringing: receiving “Jew bags” full of charity from Arizona Hasids; wrestling with an absent dad and a Roz Chast-ian mother of her own.
After Philip Roth excoriates her in a dream (“You’re nothing like me! You’re a woman and not even a pretty one!”), she falls for a former student with more red flags than a Bolshevik revolution. She represents the isolation of her broken heartedeness by depicting herself as a lone duck in a human world. Ulinich’s triumph is to make us care about Lena’s quest: in search of love, she returns with insight, experience, and self-awareness that is all the more precious for being hard-won.
Watch an interview with Anya Ulinich: