Frederica “Freddy” Riley feels like she’s lucky. Her girlfriend, Laura Dean, is the girl of her dreams on paper: confident, popular, and beautiful. The only issue is that, almost every time a holiday rolls around, Laura finds a reason for the two of them to break up.
Frustrated by her devotion to Laura’s lies and infidelities, Freddy seeks help in the from emails to Anna Vice, an advice columnist; her group of best friends, none of whom are particularly keen on Laura themselves; and the Seek-Her, a fortune teller whose verdict on the situation is that Freddy must be the one to break up with Laura Dean. As she’s drawn in again and again by Laura’s charm, Freddy begins to feel more and more distant from her loved ones, her best friend Doodle (whose struggles she’s oblivious to), and her sense of self.
As a graphic novel, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me features two elements that make the medium so enamoring: easy-to-read, naturalistic dialogue, and gorgeous illustrations. Mariko Tamaki has created a cast of characters that you’re allowed to see both sides of: like Laura Dean’s understandable draw and her dismissive abruptness, or Freddy’s happiness when she feels in love and the ways that her romantic relationship hurts the people who care about her. The dialogue between the high school-age characters flows well, without falling into the all-too-easy trap of stereotypes or buzzwords. The majority of the main characters fall on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, making the story less of a coming-out one and more about the difficulties that come with feeling “othered” by your identity. Among the dive into how abuse in same-sex relationships can be easier to overlook, Tamaki also addresses the frequent dismissal of those who don’t “come out right,” and how parental support plays such a large role in the comfort LGBTQ youth have in their own identities.
Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s illustrations elevate the story further, as she adds beautiful shades of light pink among the typical black and white illustrations found in graphic novels. The characters are expressive in their joy and sadness, but Valero-O’Connell is also skilled at creating expressions that are hiding emotions, as Doodle draws away from Freddy or Freddy tries to play off her irritation at Laura. The quirky restaurants and stores that pepper the story’s setting in Berkeley, California (such as the organic restaurant Freddy works at, where all of the dishes are named from famous lesbians) all sport a unique, fun, and above all authentic charm. Freddy’s habit of sewing stuffed animal-hybrids is also made clear by the undeniable adorable mashups Valero-O’Connell fills her room with (a half-mermaid, half-Santa is a key player in one emotional scene).
For a story that doesn’t shy away from the angst and pain of unhealthy teenage relationships, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me doesn’t wallow in pain. Instead, it builds to an ending that will leave readers with a sense of catharsis – and the message that no one is defined by being an “ex-” of someone else.