Mar 23, 2010

La Perdida by Jessica Abel

La Perdida by Jessica Abel

La Perdida tells the story of Carla Olivares, a young Mexican-American who grows up in Chicago with her mother and brother. Carla’s father is Mexican, but she was never much in touch with him growing up. When she graduates from college, she decides to pack up her bags and move to Mexico City for a year to reconnect with her roots. At first she crashes at the flat where an ex-boyfriend of sorts, Harry, is staying. Harry is in Mexico to follow the footsteps of his Beat heroes and write a novel, and mainly hangs out with other expats. But when things go wrong between the two of them, Carla moves into a new place and develops her own circle of friends – mostly Mexican people, who she hopes will be able to teach her what Mexican culture and life are truly like.

La Perdida is quite simply one of the smartest comics I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading – the concepts it deals with, the characterisation, the writing, the storytelling, the way it moves to an inevitable and yet surprising conclusion – it all impressed me so much. La Perdida is a politically sophisticated book about political naïveté, and I don’t imagine that’s an easy thing to pull off.

When Carla arrives in Mexico City, she acts like an idealistic young American who doesn’t want to be an idealistic young America. She criticises Harry for only making friends with other expats; she visits Frida Kahlo’s house and hangs a poster of hers in her room; she makes an effort to visit places outside the usual tourist routes; she goes to markets, buys local art and talks to people; she tries to learn Spanish; and she becomes incredibly distraught when a man she meets at one of those markets accuses her of being just another naïve American trying to appropriate a culture she knows nothing about; of roughing it in the third-world just because she thinks it’ll be “authentic” and fun.


The question of whether or not this is Carla in a nutshell is raised again and again throughout the book, and the answer is not easy to find. La Perdida asks difficult questions about colonialism, social justice, privilege, political idealism, cultural appropriation, and cultural relativity. The one thing we can be sure of is that Carla means well, but unfortunately out there in the real world meaning well doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t do harm. Very often well-meaning people are part of the systems of oppression they want to combat, and this seems to be the case with Carla whether she likes it or not.

Carla wants to be open; she wants to listen and to learn. Unfortunately, her very openness slowly transmutes into a sort of wilful blindness to the dangers that surround her. Her guilt for being white, American and very well-off compared to those who surround her leads her to accepting things that would normally have set her alarm bells ringing. The reader, of course, can easily see where things are heading. But the brilliant thing about La Perdida is that it makes it difficult to blame Carla for being so wilfully naïve.

There’s a very strong cultural tendency to blame women who put themselves in situations of danger, who are naïve when they “should” have been alert and then suffer the consequences of their trustfulness. I love the fact that Jessica Abel challenges this tendency and makes it hard for readers to blame Carla. Because we get to know her so well, it’s difficult not to respect her. And because she asks herself so many difficult questions, we’re forced to ask them too, instead of simply explaining away what happens as the actions of a silly young woman.

La Perdida is an excellent, excellent book, and I’ll try to get my hands on more of Jessica Abel’s work as soon as possible.

La Perdida La Perdida

(Have you reviewed this book too? Let me know and I'll add your link here.)

25 comments:

  1. Wow, this book sounds excellent. I love the story line and the setting. I will try and get this for the graphic novel challenge.

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  2. I've never heard of this one. It sounds interesting and I love that cover!

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  3. Great review, Ana! Another graphic novel for me to look out for! :D

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  4. This sounds excellent! Can't believe how fast my list of 'graphic novel must reads' is growing.

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  5. I still haven't read any graphic novels yet, but I plan to do so in the future. I just don't know which one to read first. Is there a site where they list all graphic novels by themes, categories?

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  6. Ooh I really want to read this one! It looks great.

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  7. It reminds me of me in college, wanting to do good but in the process being part of the oppressive system. ugh. hate being reminded of my naivete!
    :--) Still, I suppose that means I could really relate to this character! :--)

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  8. Sounds like a really interesting book! I'm going to guess my library won't have it...

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  9. Thank you, Ana!!! I'd never heard of this one before...and I *know* it's one I need to read. I know I'm going to love it, and I know it's going to tear me apart at the seams for this reason: "Very often well-meaning people are part of the systems of oppression they want to combat..." if for no others. Wonderful, wonderful review, Ana.

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  10. REALLY excited to read your review of this one, since La Perdida is one of those selections so often talked up in literary circles and college classrooms dealing with comics. I haven't gotten to it yet, but I did read Life Sucks, also by Abel (can't remember if you've read that one), and it seems such a different undertaking!

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  11. It sounds like this one hits on lots of interesting topics. I love the idea of Carla wanting to get to know her heritage.

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  12. Ohmigosh, this sounds wonderful! I bet it's universal across all ethnicities, too. I often wonder, when I go back to India, what people really think of me. But I don't think I'm trying to "appropriate" that culture, really. I just want to balance both sides, and it can be very difficult to do. I think this book would be great for me!

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  13. This sounds like an incredible read and one that deals with a lot of sticky issues. I think it would be a very eye-opening read for me, so I am adding it to my list. I loved your reactions to this book and also loved that you felt it was such a smart read. A recommendation like that goes a long way coming from you!

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  14. Mmm Mexican comic. Sounds awesome. Did you just add another graphic novel onto my imaginary tbr pile?

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  15. Oh, this sounds fantastic! I love how it encompasses so many important concepts along with the adorable illustrations. Very nice!

    Emidy
    from Une Parole

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  16. Another one for the list - this looks fabulous. I'm continually amazed by the unique and memorable way in which graphic novels can tell a story that would be completely different if told in conventional novel format.

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  17. Sounds very intresting; will add it to the list. Thanks for the wonderful review!

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  18. I really enjoyed reading your review. Ordinarily, I don't pay much attention to graphic novels, but you make this sound so interesting!

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  19. This is an excellent, excellent review. I still am not too keen on graphic novels but I hear you!

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  20. I feel like such a nerd, I just searched my library's online catalog for La Perdida. Turns out I'll have to inter-library loan it, but well, after read The Arrival after your review, I'm pretty positive I'm going to follow your graphic novel (comic) recommendations because they are spot on!

    La Perdida sounds thought-provoking, and having my thoughts provoked is awesome!!

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  21. Vivienne, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Mrs B: Isn't the cover gorgeous? Though the art inside worked well in black and white, I couldn't help but wish it had been in colour like the cover.

    Melody: I hope you enjoy it when you get to it :)

    JoAnn: I'm glad to hear it's growing! There are so many great ones out there.

    Andreea: Hmm... finding a list by themes is difficult, but Graphic Novel Reporter has a lot of reviews, and so does the Graphic Novels Challenge blog!

    Lu, I think you'd enjoy it :)

    Jill: lol, I could too. I think we all go through those phases :P

    Amanda: Fingers crossed that it does!

    Debi: I think you're going to love it, yes!

    Andi: I'm not surprised to hear it's so widely studied - there's just so much here! I haven't read Life Sucks and I actually hadn't realised it was also by her. It does sound completely different!

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  22. Kathy: I can understand why she went to Mexico, and why at the same time that heritage made things extra complicated for her. It's like she was between worlds.

    Aarti: Yes, I definitely think it's universal! I don't think Carla was trying to appropriate Mexican culture either, but her fear of doing that puts her in an odd position and leads to... well, trouble :P I really can't say more without spoilers. But do read this!

    Zibilee: Aw, I'm flattered to hear that :)

    Mee: I hope I did :P

    Emidy: The art is lovely, yes, and the content gave me lots to think about. What else could I ask for?

    Darla: I know! And La Perdida is definitely one of those.

    ds, you're most welcome :)

    Violet: I'm glad you're considering giving this one a chance!

    Alice: I'm hoping to convert you bit by bit ;)

    April: Oh, I hope you find it worthwhile! Can't wait to hear what you think.

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  23. Well Ana, given that you are the one responsible for me FINALLY trying graphic novels and loving them...it goes without saying (but I will anyway) that this one is going on my TBR on Goodreads right now!

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  24. As a new fan to graphic novels, I really have to pick this up! Thanks for pointing me in the direction of another good one. :)

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  25. Sadly, this one did not work so well for me. I see where you're coming from in this wonderfully written review, Ana, but at the end of the day, I wish Abel had approached Mexican youth culture in a much less stereotypical way. Thanks for your insight!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.