When I was growing up, I always skipped the newspaper comics, passing “Family Circus” and “Peanuts” across the table to my brother while I perused the movie reviews. Comics were boring, I thought, unable to recognize the appeal in talking penguins or imaginary tigers. I couldn’t have anticipated that as an adult I’d spend hours reading them — this time in the form of graphic novels and memoirs. As book-length comics, these narratives employ sophisticated art and nuanced storytelling and are a world away from the newspaper funnies I passed up back in the day. Graphic novels have taken on the Holocaust (Art Spiegelman’s classic, Maus), girlhood in Iran (Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi), complex relationships with parents (Fun Home by Alison Bechdel), politics (Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde), loss (Mom’s Cancer by Brian Fies), even the funny and tense account of planning a wedding (Scenes from an Impending Marriage by Adrian Tomine).
You could say that Good Eggs, a new graphic memoir by Phoebe Potts, is about infertility. You could say it’s about overcoming depression, or about becoming an artist. I pitched the book to my adult bat mitzvah study group as a Jewish coming of age tale. And there’s certainly a case to be made that Good Eggs is about family, specifically, the wild frontier between mother and daughter. But you could also call it a love story. Plenty of books tackle these topics, but I can’t think of one that combines them as hilariously and brilliantly as Good Eggs. And I guarantee none of those books contains a portrait of the author as a bowl of Honey-Nut Cheerios.
As Good Eggs opens, Phoebe and her husband, Jeff, are trying to become parents the old-fashioned way. Anyone who’s ever ditched birth control after years of responsibility will relish the drawing of the couple as a naked Adam and Eve in the garden, yelling “Whee!” When nature is unwilling to comply, Phoebe and Jeff enter “The New England Fertility Factory,” a foreign environment that Potts skewers to hilarious effect, from her sharply observed study of the types of couples in the waiting room to her depiction of a “uterus straightener” as the medieval torture device it sounds like. I was particularly taken by the way Potts anthropomorphizes her eggs and Jeff’s sperm as mini versions of themselves: Sperm to egg: How old are you? Egg: Thirty-six. How old are you? Sperm (dismayed): Um, about seventeen minutes.
Interspersed with the wrenching saga of fertility treatments are scenes of Phoebe’s complicated relationship with her flawed, but lovable mother, Marjory, who can never quite manage to summon the maternal empathy her daughter craves. (“What are you doing to me?” she cries, when Phoebe confides that she’s miscarrying.) More comfortable expressing her love through action, Marjory is the somewhat crazed orchestrator of the Potts family’s longstanding “Jewish xmas” tradition. This holiday extravaganza anchors Phoebe during the year, connecting her to the values of Judaism: “good deeds, neuroses, and lots of food.”
The many-layered narrative also portrays Phoebe’s devastating struggle as a young adult with depression, a tale leavened only by her take on Newton, Mass., and its psychiatric community: one doctor is portrayed as a collection of diplomas surrounding a disembodied face. As she emerges from her depression, we also see the development of her relationship with Jeff, a fellow artist whom she meets during that time.
From their first encounter through many scenes of their marriage, the depiction of this relationship is one of the book’s highlights. Steadfast and romantic, Jeff shares silly jokes about their cat with Phoebe, encourages her art, and comforts her through the increasingly disappointing fertility treatments. “Will God hate me?” Phoebe wonders, after being told she may have to reduce the number of embryos transferred during one procedure. “I think the question is — will you hate you?” Jeff tells her. “But I won’t.” Potts’ rendering of their private jokes, their daily routines, even their fights, is so funny and honest that it made me want to fall in love with my husband all over again.
Good Eggs succeeds on many levels thanks in part to Potts’ engaging voice. Wry, self-deprecating, and funny, Potts is the kind of woman who, after a successful egg harvest at the fertility clinic, announces to her husband, “I laid eggs like a deep sea mackerel!” She’s not afraid to show herself demanding the whereabouts of her baby from the universe, or to admit conflicted feelings about lesbian friends who get pregnant with the aid of fertility treatments — a wonderful option for them, a last resort for her.
As a graphic memoir, the other aspect of its success lies in the art. Potts immerses readers in her world through black-and-white panels full of activity, detail, and emotion (even the cat gets thought bubbles). For the most part, the drawings straightforwardly illustrate the narrative, but Potts also uses them to illuminate her inner life and thoughts. The unpleasant woman in the fertility clinic’s finance office is portrayed as a menacing crow; Emily Dickinson and William Styron appear at an imaginary picnic to discuss art; when Phoebe signs up for a Hebrew class, the letters rain from the sky in a confusing torrent. Perhaps my favorite section is a series of drawings set in the synagogue during Rosh Hashanah, when the story of Hannah is read. As she listens, Potts mentally casts herself as the infertile Hannah, and Jeff as the husband who loves his wife more than ten sons. It’s a poignant moment that sums up so many of the themes in Good Eggs: heartbreak, humor, family, hope, the love between spouses, and the joy and solace found in a religious community. And it’s a testimony to Phoebe Potts’ skill as a writer and artist that these narrative strands come together so compellingly in this wonderful tapestry of a memoir.
It’s tough to choose what I loved best about Good Eggs. I started laughing on the first page, and by the end, after more laughter — and a few tears — I was wishing I lived next door to Potts so that I could invite her to dinner and we could be best friends. It’s that kind of book.