Premise: Freddy is dating the charismatic, enigmatic Laura Dean, and she couldn’t be happier… except that she could be much happier, because Laura Dean keeps finding ways to make her miserable. Yet, like magnets, Freddy and Laura keep getting back together. As Freddy becomes increasingly alienated from her friends, and not even seeking advice from columnists or back-room psychics seems to help, she’s going to have to find the power within herself to reassess her priorities and find her true happiness.
Rainbow rep: a lesbian protagonist, an almost entirely queer ensemble cast, focus on queer relationships.
Content considerations: centres on a crappy, bordering-on-emotionally-abusive relationship; age gap relationships, discussions of teenaged pregnancy.
This has been on my shelf for a while, waiting patiently—lying in wait, you could even say, like an assassin, to kick my ass when the time was right. This is a gorgeous gut-punch of a book. It captures, with great authenticity and heart, a problem that many people face but doesn’t always end up on the page. It’s almost an anti-love-story: the story of how sometimes love sucks, and you need to get yourself out of there.
It’s not a common narrative, and it’s even less frequent in queer stories. In one of Freddy’s emails to that advice columnist, she notes “I’m aware that I should be grateful that I have the ability to get broken up with and publicly humiliated the same as my hetero friends. I am progress.” She’s being a little tongue-in-cheek, but she’s right. As queer narratives become more frequent and more varied, there is increasing space to express these messier personal stories alongside the (welcome and wonderful) love stories and stories of affirmation and joy. And Laura Dean, with Freddy at its helm, is certainly messy and personal. Freddy is a complicated, flawed character stumbling through a parade of mistakes, and comes across as fantastically human and real as she does so.
I didn’t date any girls in high school, but across my youth I collected a long string of infatuations with friends who… probably weren’t actually that great for me. Were these infatuations romantic, or platonic, or some complex mix of the two? It’s difficult to tell. I try not to let it keep me up at night, and I certainly won’t drag you into it, reader. In any case, Freddy’s problem—in which she keeps being magnetically tugged back into the orbit of a girl who has treated her badly—was painfully familiar.
Laura Dean kisses and flirts with other girls. Laura Dean impulsively breaks up with Freddy over the summer because she’s not sure she’ll have an Internet connection on her camping trip. Laura Dean laughs dismissively at Freddy’s hobbies. Laura Dean is a garden-variety shithead, but she also has this aura about her: something in her self-assuredness, her charisma, her blasé attitude to life. When Laura Dean shrugs and assures you that everything is fine, surely it is, because Laura Dean speaks in a way that makes you want to believe what she says is true. When Laura Dean tells you not to be mad, your anger dissolves, because you would rather bask in her light than scowl away from her and end up in the shadows.
In the blazing glow of Laura Dean, of course Freddy’s other friends fall out of focus. The central relationship of the graphic novel is actually between Freddy and her best friend Doodle, an androgynous nerd who clearly wants nothing more than to make sure Freddy is okay. As Freddy falls in and out of love with Laura, the reader has no choice but to watch Doodle fall into the backdrop, yelling at the pages all the while. Is it a surprise to anyone that Doodle, The Overshadowed Best Friend Character, was my favourite? My bias is clear. But it was also rewarded, so I take that as validation.
I didn’t have the satisfaction of friend-dumping any of the girls I was magnetised to in high school, but I did, more organically, gravitate towards a group of people who I had a much better time with—a group that I’m still mostly close friends with to this day. Without spoiling too much, the eventual reversal of the “Laura Dean keeps breaking up with me” cycle is glorious and cathartic.
Freddy wants, so badly, to have the happiness of being a girlfriend, lying in bed with her girlfriend. But she finds that happiness through other friendships and other outlets. “Don’t compromise yourself for a relationship that makes you unhappy” is a massively Important narrative to get across to young readers, but it’s also just a really interesting and fun one.
The art and the visual language is amazing as well. It makes use of negative space to position the characters in those uncomfortable, liminal places, characterisation comes across in all sorts of subtle ways through body language, and the mix of greyscale and blush-pink is intriguing and fun to look at. There are a lot of panels where words just aren’t required, because the visual language is so strong. The emotional depth is just there, and it sucks you in.
As is fitting for a story about heartbreak, Laura Dean is heartbreaking. But it puts you—and Freddy—back together at the end. Seeing Freddy grow and come into her own, reassess her priorities, anchor herself where she’s genuinely loved and appreciated, and finally break out of Laura Dean’s orbit, is so rewarding. The characters feel authentic, the world is alive and colourful, and this is overall such a great depiction of a complicated subject. It gets heavy, but has these great moments of humour, and deals with its issues with such heart and nuance. I think I’ll be recommending this one for a long time coming.