Lovefool 03.03.14 | Homonyms in the Snow

Lovefool declares Danica Novgorodoff’s new graphic novel The Undertaking of Lily Chen "a book to be experienced, not simply enjoyed."



I had a big rant about how sick I am of winter all typed up, complete with a crack at local meteorologists, but decided that it was too gloomy. It helped that I glanced up just in time to see an inexplicable moment of attempted sunlight. I guess it’s not all bad. I started a new task at work, one that I am epically shaky on but I’m assured it’s just a rocky beginning and that I’m really smart and awesome and will be okay. Meowie is looking a little peaky but still managed to perk up enough to come stomp around on me while screaming at the top of his sweet little kitty lungs at 8:30 this morning. I spent too much last night but did it in the company of good friends. Ebb and flow, I suppose. A second glance out the window tells me the snow is starting back up.
Life is weird, though, and I’d be a bit of a liar if I didn’t admit to some gratitude for the doses of strange I get. Danica Novgorodoff, writer and artist on First Second’s end of March release The Undertaking of Lily Chen, seems like she must be very strange indeed. Her work scans like a dream and I read it in the feverish manner that it deserved, all wrinkled brow and hastily flipped pages. Her pages are filled with watercolor ghosts, extraordinarily expressive faces, and a sense of longing, even when the story starts to tick along, at which point it bubbles over, the ghosts and longing, until it reaches an almost inevitable conclusion. It’s a story that ends well. In fact, it’s an excellent story throughout, one that meanders through myth and life and death but never loses the plot or takes us too far out of the world.
To really enjoy The Undertaking of Lily Chen at that bone-deep level we all want to enjoy things at, though, I feel like you need to be familiar with a few things. You have to know what it’s like to have disappointed your parents. You should probably also know what it’s like to have that itch under your skin to be anywhere else, the itch that wakes you in the night and never, ever stops, even when you’ve fled your life for other, not necessarily greener, pastures. You have to know what it’s like to want and to be willing to claw your way in the direction of your dreams, never stopping until you find yourself at the top of the ever-shifting heap we call life for a fleeting moment. It probably doesn’t hurt to be a daughter, a somehow elusive (despite never going anywhere until the very second you do, at which point you never write or call or even, eventually, text) failure of a daughter. It definitely doesn’t hurt to be able to play with your words. While we can all relate to something in this book, I imagine The Undertaking of Lily Chen isn’t for everyone. It’s dark but dreamy and hits buttons we probably don’t even remember we have until hours later, when our gut twists and we realize we’d missed…well, nothing. We didn’t miss anything and that’s why we’re so unsettled.
Deshi Li, Novgorodoff’s hero-of-sorts, watches his brother die and agrees, through his shock and grief, to carry out his superstitious parents’ wish to find his brother a bride. He flees military service, not that it actually matters, to go on a week’s journey to dig up a suitable wife to accompany his brother into the afterlife. After all, an unmarried man can’t go alone into the dark. Deshi meets the eponymous Lily Chen, both the delight and despair of her parents, not that far into the journey and they bumble through the Chinese countryside in what could almost be a caper if even the lightest moments weren’t shot through with a bit of darkness. He meets some others, some more problematic than most, but it’s Lily who’s the star of the story. Shallow, lazy, beautiful Lily is mesmerizing, she practically leaps off the page, and of course everyone in the tale is in love with her. How could Deshi, her companion in escape, resist? They relate, though, one determined, gritty soul to another, and they fall into impossible love. Deshi is as simple as a kiss in the parking lot after school and is, despite his best efforts, pretty much immediately captivated by Lily. She’s a bit more complex, though, a bit harder to crack. She certainly trusts him a great deal, which I find to be far more complicated than love sometimes.
Will you enjoy The Undertaking of Lily Chen? I don’t know. It’s almost a book to be experienced, not simply enjoyed. Should you read it? Of course you should. Don’t you want to know how Deshi and Lily’s story ends? | Erin Jameson

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