Created by: Rutu Modan
Published by: Drawn & Quarterly
ISBN: 1770461159 (Amazon)
Romance has always played a large part in my life and been of tremendous importance to me—primarily perhaps because I engage it so vicariously. Romance and romantic ideals have always held themselves at a bit of an arm’s length from both my experiences and my way of expressing my love for others.
I didn’t find myself at last involved in a reciprocated romantic relationship until I was twenty-three. I had my first crush when I was six, when I realized that I (in some sense) wanted desperately to take part in the boy-girl lego. Problematically, I was a) almost incurably shy and b) surrounded by love stories. Songs, cinema, novels. The majority all pointed to the exhilarating wonder of falling in love. This constant reminder of what I was missing out on combined with my inability to form social connections with anyone I was remotely interested in. The result was a me who pined incessantly.11Here is my boy-girl history up until I was twenty-three, the highlights:
First grade. Wondered what it would be like to kiss Christine. She was cute.
Second grade. Laurel was also cute. Feeling conflicted.
Third grade. A new student, Erin. No longer conflicted. Erin Erin Erin.
Fourth grade. Girl sneaks up behind me, covers my eyes, “Guess who?” “I think you’re Heidi because your hands are all rough.” It was Erin. I had never felt Heidi’s hands but guessed they were hers because they didn’t feel warm and soft and I didn’t care for Heidi and imagined her hands would therefore be unpleasing. Pretty much never spoke to Erin again until our ten-year highschool reunion.
Fifth grade. Erin.
Sixth grade. Erin. I have talked to her twice? Get voted Best Eyes. Erin gets voted Best Eyes. We take picture together, arms around each other. I leave room for the Holy Spirit between us. The Holy Spirit and an Indian elephant.
Seventh grade. Kristin insinuates herself into my hopes. I promise myself I will ask her out by year’s end. Every night I go to sleep promising myself, “Tomorrow.”
Eighth grade. Kristin. I have not talked to her once. I do finally ask her to sign my yearbook.
Ninth grade. Amanda from church group sits on my lap in one of those lame bandeau bikinis at summer camp. Am a smitten kitten. Kristin while at school, Amanda outside of school. Never speak again to either.
Tenth grade. Kristin. Haven’t seen Amanda in a year. Still holding out hope.
Rest of highschool. A cocktail of Tracy, Kristin, Mara, Corrine, and others. Any one of which I would happily devote the entire rest of my existence for. In theory.
Age nineteen. Pining for Tracy. Talking to Tory. Talking’s a step in a direction. Willing to settle for less than Tracy (sorry Tory). Still cannot broach boy-girl subject. Mortified and lonely.
Twenty. Amber? I don’t even remember. Her mom hated me. I think she knew I liked her. Probably because I was a full-on creeper who had no idea how to be a normal person.
Twenty-one. More of the same. Petrification.
Twenty-two. Meet Ellen. Senior in high school. So in love. Arrange to hang out with her and friends constantly. In a devastating blow, her best friend asks me to prom and I’m too socially impaired to demur. 1) I’m too old for prom, 2) her friend crushes on me big time, 3) Ellen helps her get ready and I’m just in love with her the whole time and kind of ignoring my prom date. I’m on my first date ever and just mad that I’m with this person I’m on a date with. I’m the worst person alive.
Twenty-three. I tell Ellen how I feel and nearly throw up doing so. I want to die, but it works out okay and we date, get engaged, and fall apart a few years later.
Now you know why I looked to love stories for my romantic thrills. I’m so glad twenty-three was seventeen years ago. After a while, and until I grew out of my devastatingly shy faze, my only means to experience Love was through stories, by insinuating myself vicariously into their texture and tapestry.
Tragic, I know. And probably a too-common tale for nerds and geeks.22I built model rockets as a kid, watched Robotech, read AD&D choose-your-own adventures, lived and breathed The Uncanny X-Men, and listened to Weird Al and Neil Young (and then Christian metal bands, the kind of metal allowed by my mother). You figure out how well I probably fit in with my peers at the time.
So that was the bedrock for my fascination with love stories. When I was young and untried, I adored the easy polish of guileless boy-gets-girl stories like Secret Admirer, Empire Records, and Can’t Hardly Wait. As I grew up (finally), my appreciation tacked toward more intricate and perhaps realistic relationships. By the time Before Sunset rolled around in 2004, I was fully primed for its cocktail of love, bitterness, longing, and irresolution.
I had seen its predecessor, Before Sunrise, several years earlier—a classic boy-meets-girl-on-a-train-from-Budapest33Speaking of, I highly recommend this gorgeous series of timelapses from Budapest, probably my favourite European city.
romance that ends in ambiguity. The film closes in hope and longing; Jesse and Celine meet on a train, wander the streets of Vienna, fall in love a bit, and then go their separate ways. The film’s characters were my age in 1995 when the story took place. I too had wandered old European cities with a girl. I too had experienced the kind of loss and sustained hope that Jesse and Celine would have by the second film.
Before Sunset, filmed nine years after Before Sunrise, reunites Jesse and Celine by some whim of destiny and examines what the passage of time can do to a couple in love with no hope of ever seeing each other again. The Before cycle of films is probably my favourite cinematic series by a fair margin, and Before Sunset is my favourite installment. Also by a fair margin. The film hit me where I was at—in a spiritual sense rather in any sort of literal way (my own life and choices did not mirror either of the principle characters). Linklater and his actors explored the depth of suffering and longing that drives people through the distances that separate them. Jesse and Celine could not shake the haunting of their affection for each other but had no reason to believe they could ever find each other again. I felt similarly about a couple women from my own personal history—each of whom I bore abiding affection haunted by irresolution. Both of Linklater’s characters tied themselves to relationships that were stand-ins for what they really wanted. I had done similarly, thinking (often mistakenly) that something was better than nothing. And these two cinematic former lovers, when they meet again for ninety minutes on screen, are filled with exactly all the passion and fury and insecurity and woundedness and longing that you would expect. It’s all at once a lovely and heartbreaking thing. A monument to the heart-shattering power of the human affection for another person.
I too react this way every time a Yellow Pages book lands on my porch. Astonishment that these still exist.
Rutu Modan’s The Property, for all the many things it is, most interested me in its exploration of both of the earlier Before movies’ themes through its two female protagonists, grandmother Regina and granddaughter Mica. Modan almost certainly does not actively seek to explore the two films—she may not even be aware of them—but the nature of her characters and their stories puts the Linklater films strongly in mind. The titular property is never quite MacGuffin, but it may be close enough. Whatever the case, the property in question gets twenty-something Mica to visit Warsaw with her grandmother, where she meets a young man. A probably nice young man. The property also gets almost-ninety-year-old Regina to visit the city for the first time since fleeing (while pregnant) under the shadow of the Reich. It’s a visit haunted by memories of the lover she left behind. The property does have its place in both motivating story elements and drawing things to their open-ended conclusion, but this is a story of persons interlocking and intertwining rather than any sort of real-estate thriller.
And while Modan crafts an entirely enjoyable story for the younger Mica, it’s in Regina’s life and reaction to Warsaw that The Property was most fascinating to me. Jesse and Celine probe their frustrations and disappointments in Before Sunset, considering what might have been and how time both dissolves what was and erects new burdens (as well as mythologies)—but they’re still young and only what, thirty-one? Regina interacts similarly in her own homecoming—only where Jesse and Celine have decades of potential joys and mistakes ahead of them, Regina at nearly ninety has little time left. She may be spry enough to travel, but illness lurks and too often our elderly are taken by nothing more powerful than the common flu.44An abiding and important theme throughout is Warsaw-as-cemetery. It’s on the book’s cover. It’s mentioned in the opening pages, and the climax takes place in the grand and sprawling cemetery. And that pointed fragility makes a vast difference in the way one will regard their dreams and their future.
The circle of life, really. You die, are buried,
and become the bed on which new life is conceived!
The two stories, the film and this book, are made different by the weight of years. In Before Sunset Celine says, “Memories are wonderful things, if you don’t have to deal with the past.” She hints at a kind of truth there, but she doesn’t know the full mass of her ideas. At thirty-one, she’s still just a kid. What does she know of the pain of memory, right? Regina, though? Nearing ninety, she’s lived sixty-nine whole years of everything having gone deeply wrong. She’s returning to Warsaw, but not to a happy ending. She’s too old for that kind of bald-faced romance. The city, for all its changes, is filled with memories. Plenty of good ones, plenty of lovely ones, plenty of pleasant and even exultant ones—but every one of those memories is nestled in a blanket of woes. Maybe their light can shine again, but maybe the magnified loss will swallow everything whole instead.
Almost (almost) as much as The Property is Regina’s story, it’s Mica’s as well. While Regina’s is some sort of distant, smokey reflection of Before Sunset, Mica’s adventure looks a bit more like the earlier Before Sunrise. While about her business, Mica meets Tomasz, a Ukrainian man serving as a guide to Polish Jews returning to visit the important sites in Warsaw. There is that rapid-fire dance of flirtation, the give-and-take between strangers who test and adventure, never quite knowing their boundaries. The stepping-on of feelings and the making of amends. It’s all rather charming—and almost as if solidifying the Sunrise/Sunset comparison, Modan takes pains to tie Mica’s romance in 2008 to Regina’s in the '30s.
The Property weaves its several stories together beautifully, with each meandering freely into another. The project might be ambitious but it’s accomplished so gracefully that one might easily forget that Modan has fabricated her tale. The Property bears none of the contrived earmarks of the common complicatedly plotted narrative and instead reads as a series of events that actually happened—in that meandering sort of molasses that moves and spins the real world.
I first encountered Modan’s work in Exit Wounds several years ago. I found the art style lovely and spare but the book left little effect on me. I remember little from it and cannot even remember the sex of its protagonist. The Property, on the other hand, has me arrested. Modan’s illustrations are similarly simple (making it somewhat difficult to pin down Mica’s age), but the work as a whole evokes a sense of beauty I don’t remember from the earlier book. The colouring is gorgeous and some of the scenes will likely stay with me as on-hand examples of what a good story looks like. Additionally, Modan does this cool little bit with Tomasz, who’s writing a graphic novel about the Polish Uprising. His art is beautifully sketched, with a detail intentionally absented from the rest of the story. It reminded me of that episode of Gumby when they find a television and Pokey points out the live-action program playing and exclaims, “Get this, animated people!”55 It’s a small thing but it adds to the charm of the book and might give us a better clue as to what Mica “really” looks like.
We all contribute something extra to whichever books we consume. Experiences, biases, allusions. I cannot read The Property without bringing to mind Linklater’s films. The two stories inform each other. Regina’s and Mica’s stories will always reflect Jesse’s and Celine’s—and vice versa. The connection is inescapable now that it’s there. But for me at least, that’s a good thing. Even as the two creations inform each other, they also serve to elevate each other. And that a work as strong and powerfully devised as Modan’s The Property could be elevated at all is incredible to consider. I would recommend this book as one of the best of the year for pretty much anyone over seventh grade. A fantastic, serious, lively work—one that looks for the human heart and finds it in one of the last places we might expect to find it: in human characters.
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