It is a truth universally acknowledged that family can be a very complicated thing. You know you always love them, but most of the time you may just not really like them. Italian writer-illustrator Flavia Biondi's English-language debut Generations explores the blood bonds that tie and sometimes break us.
Matteo is in his twenties, gay, and just back in his provincial hometown. After a less-than-well received (which is putting it mildly) coming out to his father, Matteo ran off to Milan to be with the boyfriend he met online, his first love. Such decisions don't always end well, and Matteo finds himself back at home at his grandmother's house, unemployed, broke, and lonely. The house itself isn't exactly peace and quiet—his three aunts and cousin also live there, and the reception to the newest houseguest ranges from warm welcome to rampant disgust. To occupy his days, Matteo becomes caregiver to his grandmother, making new friends and finding unlikely allies in the Polish caregivers' network that he had unintentionally alienated when he took that job. Over time, he discovers that his family holds as many secrets as he did, and those secrets are not much different in some ways than that of his own closeted sexuality. Re-developing these family bonds gives him the courage to figure out his future, and come to peace with elements of his past, including the father who shunned him three years ago.
This is a fine English-language debut story. The desire for love and acceptance by one's family, a quest to find one's place in the world—these are experiences understood in any language. The queer experience in a traditionally Catholic country does smack of some stereotypes: the family in the provinces being less progressive, leading our protagonist to flee for the more progressive city, with the lie of "he's at university" being provided to family and friends. This worried me that we were going to fall into some usual family tension tropes, such as the first meeting with the parent who shunned you turning into a emotionally charged moment of forgiveness. Fortunately, Biondi avoids this, giving us all the missteps that come with the territory. There are hints of reconciliation between Matteo and his father by the end of the book, but it's far from being wrapped up with a neat little bow.
For a story that purports itself as a treatise for the younger generation to understand themselves through the lens of their elders, stories about Matteo's aunts were rather lacking. We know a little bit about the relationship between Matteo and his father, and Auntie Cosima (Aunt C), who ran off with a married man and gave birth to Matteo's cousin Sara out of wedlock, but what about Auntie Bruna (Aunt B), who seems perpetually bitter about...something? And Aunt Antonia (Aunt A), who really doesn't say much unless it involves her TV shows. With these missing pieces, this is just a nice story about a man coming home to find himself, not one of drawing parallels between the elders and the youth. I crave the other half of this story, particularly about Aunt B. No one is born that angry at the world.
The artwork shows an influence of Harvey Pekar's Cleveland, both in the use of black and white art, and the emphasis on location as part of one's personal development. There's rich detail in the small town Matteo calls home (deliberately not specifically named, but assumed to be in the Tuscan region based on references to Prato province), but not as much for the scenes in which he returns to Milan and the man who dumped him. Symbolic of Matteo re-discovering his roots through new eyes? Perhaps. I also love the rich detail Biondi devotes to our main players—Matteo, Aunt B, Danilo (Matteo's father)—or characters that may be part of Matteo's life for a moment but will have profound impact, such as Francesco and Matteo's Milanese ex-lover Massimo. Your eye cannot help but be drawn (pun intended) to them, their images imprinted on you the same way they are imprinted in Matteo's mind. The supporting cast—Aunts A and C, cousin Sara—have just enough pencil and ink work to distinguish who they are (though in the case of Aunts A and C, there isn't much difference!) and their relationship to the story, but they blend a bit into the background.
High praise is also due to Officine Bolzoni and Cosimo Torsoli for their lettering. Matteo's inner monologue reads more like printed prose in both capital and lowercase letters, a linear style for this man's very nonlinear story. Text boxes adapt themselves to the background: borders when bridging two panels or when surrounded by very precise artwork, borderless when the art is more freehand. The panel layout here is sublime, taking advantage of the larger format of the graphic novel to showcase two page panel spreads: a funeral, a wall of family photos.
Generations is Biondi's fourth graphic novel (the other three are in Italian), and I hope the success of this English edition leads to further translations of her work. She's a fine storyteller who crosses oceans and languages with truths of the human experience.