Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Lunar New Year Love Story’

“A light so dark, a heaven that is hell”

Gene Luen Yang, who knows a thing or two about writing good comics, writes Lunar New Year Love Story, which is illustrated by LeUyen Pham and published by First Second Books. Let’s get to it!

As I am a sentimental sucker, I dig romances – not enough to watch the Hallmark Channel, you understand, but a good romance hits me right in the feels, and I always appreciate reading a good one. I kind of suspected that Yang would write a good one, and I was right, with the caveat that 99% of romances don’t really have the greatest plots, because … well, I mean, you know you’re reading a romance, and in this book, it’s fairly clear what’s going to happen with the main characters, so you shouldn’t read it expecting it to be surprising in any way. Yang throws a few surprises in there just for fun, but the core plot is fairly simple to puzzle out. That doesn’t make it bad, of course, and, I mean, in superhero books, the superhero is always going to win, so there’s that, but in superhero books, there do seem to be more ways for the superhero to win, while in romances, it seems like there are only a few ways for the lovers to get together. I’m just warning you, in case you get this, that Yang doesn’t really try to surprise us too much, and that’s ok!

Anyway, he does do something fairly clever with our protagonist, Valentina. He begins with her staring into a mirror ringed by photographs of her and a boy, seemingly happy, while a strange voice telling her to give it her heart. She narrates that she had a year, until Valentine’s Day, but she already screwed it up, so her heart is forfeit. Well, that’s intriguing! We then get the necessary backstory: Valentina as a younger girl (in the beginning, she’s a senior in high school, as we learn a bit later), someone who loves Valentine’s Day and makes elaborate cards to give to her classmates. Every year, she gets a Valentine’s Day card in the mail from an anonymous stranger (which Yang manages to make far less creepy than you might think), and every year, she gives her father a card from her mother, who’s in “heaven.” Valentina tells us that her mom died when she, Valentina, was very young, so she doesn’t remember her, and her father never remarried or even dated, so their love story must have been epic. It’s one of the reasons she loves the day so much. Meanwhile, she gets help with her cards from, well, Cupid. A Cupid, I guess, whom she refers to as Saint Valentine, her imaginary friend who flies around with short, stubby wings and tells her how great love is. All this cheeriness can’t last, of course – even if we didn’t have the brief prologue we’d know that things would get worse before they get better – and Valentina slowly becomes jaded about love. Her best friend, Bernice, dates and dumps boys every week, it seems, and she keeps telling Valentina to give up on love. Into high school, she still makes cards for her classmates, but they all think it’s dumb. Then her grandmother – her father’s mother – shows up – it’s been a long time since she’s seen Val – and drops a bombshell on her about her mother – she’s not dead, she abandoned her family. That wrecks Val’s belief in love, changes her cupid into something quite a bit darker, and kickstarts the story.

Val wants to be free from the pain of love, so she promises to give her heart to St. Valentine in a year, on the next Valentine’s Day, if she doesn’t find true love by then. This will make her numb to everything, of course, but she sees it as a good bargain. Of course, from then on, the book follows a familiar pattern … but Yang is good enough to keep things fresh. For one thing, Val doesn’t always do what we expect her to do. Her grandmother’s presence in her life makes her begin to dive into her own Vietnamese culture, and she gets involved in lion dancing – you know, with the giant lion puppets that you see in parades in Chinatowns across the country – as a way to hang out with a cute boy, sure, but she soon falls in love with it. Yang does a nice job with the various Asian cultures represented in the book – Asia is a big place, after all, and certainly not monolithic – so it’s a nice way to show these cultures blending a bit in the States but retaining their uniqueness, as well. Lion dancing is a big ol’ metaphor, of course, but the way Yang writes it (and Pham draws it) is well done, because the metaphorical parts stem from things Val actually has to learn and master in the dance. Yang has a good ear for teens and the way they talk and act, too – he’s my age, but he’s a teacher, so I imagine he hears this stuff more than most adults and can use what he knows about teens in his books, and it feels real. I mean, it’s a bit of a leap to think seniors in high school are going to find true, deep love in the time they have, but that’s something you deal with in romances! Val moves through the year, always aware that the clock is ticking, and she slowly gets new definitions of love and what it actually means, and what it means to have none of it in her life. This is, again, nothing new, but when a good writer does stuff like it, it resonates. Yang creates a bunch of fascinating characters, and they have their own journeys, so it’s not all about Val, and it makes the book work a lot more (it’s almost 350 pages, so he has the time to do it). All of it informs the main story, of course, but it’s nice that each character feels unique and on their own path, so that Val’s story doesn’t overwhelm everything. Yang tries to encompass all kinds of love, and that makes the book more than just a teen romance. It’s a good teen romance, of course, but it’s also about family, culture, and non-romantic love. Yang knows that the romance isn’t too unique, so he broadens his scope, and the book is better for it.

Pham has been a good artist for some time, so it’s not surprising that this book looks great. She has a good talent of making the teens look like teens, so when they act like teens, there’s no cognitive dissonance because we think they should be acting more like adults. She has a large cast to deal with, and she gives everyone a nice, unique look, so it’s not hard to keep everyone straight. She gives us a very good sense of place, so Val’s world also comes alive and we can appreciate as she moves through it. The “ghosts” in the story – such as they are – are very nicely done, adding a good feeling of menace to a charming romance, as we never think things are going to be too dark, but Pham’s depiction of some of the darker things in the story help Yang’s story imply that romance is occasionally a rocky road. Her best work is when Val and her partners are lion dancing, as Pham really does a marvelous job showing how the giant puppets “move” and how Val and her partners make them dance. The lions themselves are beautifully drawn, with exquisite brush work that makes them seem furry and more real, and Pham uses some nice double-page spreads to allow them to weave their way across the page. She has an epiphany during one dance, and Pham turns the lions into more static artwork, making the scene more metaphorical very nicely before moving back into the “real” world. Late in the book, Val has another epiphany, and Pham uses a bold, single-color scheme and a delicate touch with her line work to create a beautiful, ethereal conversation that Val has to have in order to figure out what she wants. It’s really well done. Late in the book, one of the characters kind-of sort-of explains the color scheme of the book, which is a bit disappointing, but until then, Pham does a very good job with said scheme, allowing the colors to influence our mood as much as her line work does (it’s not the worst thing in the world that the character explains it, as there’s an in-story reason for it, but it is a bit on the nose). This is just a nice-looking comic.

Yang continues to put out good comics, whether he’s drawing them or not, and with Pham, he has a very good collaborator. This book is quite good, and if you are at all interested in romance stories (and why wouldn’t you be, you heartless bastards?!?!?), this is a fine addition to the genre! You can find it here, if you’re interested!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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