More often than not, LGBTQ+ characters that are represented in any form of entertainment go through arcs in which coming out or questioning their sexualities seem to be the only reason their stories are being told. Although both themes are incredibly important, no matter who the reader is, there is a slight problem that comes with this limitation of one’s narrative.
It not only insinuates that a non-heterosexual/non-cis character’s story depends on tragic moments to push along them along, but also that being part of this community is inevitably bound with leading a doomed existence. Cue Mariko Tamaki’s “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me,” the author’s latest release, which dropped earlier this month.
The Eisner-award winning author and artist teamed up with “Lumberjanes” illustrator Rosemary Valero-O’Connell to put together a new LGBTQ+ story about being young, in love and coming to the realization that your relationship sucks.
It’s a story we can all relate to, and one that LGBTQ+ readers can identify with as they also fall in love and go through the motions of disappointment and heartbreak simply because they’re not with the right person, rather than because of their sexuality.
Kirkus Reviews praised “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me,” calling it, “A story that will make your heart ache and soar,” with its “diversity of body shapes, gender expressions, sexualities and skin tones.”
Tamaki is no stranger to writing dynamic stories about young characters. In 2014, she released “This One Summer,” also with First Second Books, alongside illustrator and cousin Jillian Tamaki. The duo won the 2015 Caldecott Honor, making it the first graphic novel to win the award, as well as the esteemed Printz award, for their work.
Much like “This One Summer,” Tamaki’s latest novel is “nominally about kids,” while embracing the harsh realities of what comes alongside growing up and emerging into adulthood. In the case of Federica “Freddy” Riley, her realization is not about discovering that she likes girls but rather that she has forgotten how to love herself in the midst of an off-and-on-again relationship.
“Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” is the story of 17-year-old Freddy and the toxic, cyclical relationship she endures with cool and irresistible Laura Dean. The problem is that Laura Dean has broken up with Freddy multiple times — three, to be exact — and Freddy is incapable of admitting Laura Dean’s misdoings. Whether it’s being straight-up mean, thoughtless or even cheating, there isn’t anything Laura Dean can’t get away with, and it’s a huge problem.
Brimming with a racially and sexually diverse cast of characters, “Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” is the first time Tamaki and Valero-O’Connell join forces.
Both Tamaki and Valero-O’Connell spoke to The LA Times about the importance of writing about characters who’ve already come out. “It was really important to me that this be a story about gay kids who are out (instead of coming out),” Tamaki said. “I know there are many places where there are still serious, sometimes dire, consequences for being LGBTQ … but I also think times are changing.”
Valero-O’Connell added, “Moving beyond the single/limited narratives that are available for youth to see themselves in … normalizes those lives and adds another dimension to the sadly still very flat world queer characters seem to be allowed to inhabit.”
While Tamaki’s writing touches the reader’s heart, Valero-O’Connell’s artwork is breathtakingly beautiful. The entire book is told through shades of black, grey, white and millennial pink highlights. Panels of “bold, clean lines…[are] breathily dense with the personal details of the characters’ lives,” and it’s more than enough to convey the atmosphere in moments of silence and thought.
When readers identify with the characters on a page or on-screen, something magical happens. It’s important that you see yourself represented in various art forms, because it gives you a sense of validation and fulfillment, and there’s nothing wrong with seeking that. You allow yourself the depth that perhaps you could not find before.
Freddy is immediately relatable as the book opens. She is seeking relationship advice from an online advice column, hoping that her “complicated” relationship status will disappear if someone will validate Laura Dean’s indifference toward their connection. As a reader, you groan but also root for her, as this causes a drift between Freddy and her group of friends. The inability to break off from Laura Dean feeds into Freddy’s alienation.
The fact is, we’ve all fallen in love once. And when that first heartbreak burns throughout, coursing through your body like “food poisoning,” it’s not a feeling you can ever forget. Wouldn’t it be easier to just swallow away the pain, slap on a smile and pretend nothing is wrong instead?
This is what Freddy realizes she does for the majority, if not the entirety, of her relationship with this one girl who seems incapable of loving her back.
The only downside to Tamaki only focusing in on Freddy’s life is that, as readers, we don’t get to explore how the other characters deal with the complexities of love. It would have benefited the story if the author explored the relationship between Eric and Buddy, two of her closest friends. Because we only see the relationship in glimpses, for example, the story as a whole could have benefited if it served as more than just a component of Freddy’s life. But, then again, maybe that’s the point of the story: to normalize instead of glaring at the differences.
Freddy is told that breaking up with Laura Dean is the only way to break this curse. It’s the question that runs through the story: Am I capable? Am I worthy? Ultimately, Freddy finds that she is more than what Laura Dean treats her as, and it’s through self-love and friendship that she is able to take control of her narrative.
Tamaki and Valero-O’Connell have lovingly given us a story that asks us to look deep into the nature of love, and understand what happens when it asks us to give up too much of ourselves in return for nothing. There will be moments when you weep, groan in frustration but, most of all, it will leave you with a full heart.
“Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me” proves that a story doesn’t need to endanger its queer characters in order to be poignant, and most importantly that love is a complex emotion felt by all despite age, gender or sexual orientation.