At a Crossroads: Between a Rock and My Parents’ Place

By Kate T. Williamson
144 pages, color
Published by Princeton Architectural Press

One of the biggest potential stumbling blocks for an autobiographical work is the fact that most of us don’t necessarily live the most exciting of lives. I’ve often heard the genre referred to as "naval-gazing works" and it’s hard to deny that I haven’t read my share of those over the years. With all that in mind, though, I think what really grabbed me about Kate T. Williamson’s At a Crossroads: Between a Rock and My Parents’ Place was that she lives an absolutely ordinary (and in other hands, even dull) life, but the way she tells it made me enthralled from start to finish.

Kate has finished college, and just gotten home from a year’s travel in Japan. Her plan in simple: live with her parents for three months while she works on her book about Japan. What happens next, though, does most definitely not go to plan. Over the next 23 months, Kate finds herself trying to find ways to entertain herself in rural Pennsylvania, and discovers that one can find enjoyment in some of the most mundane things.

I’ll freely admit that I didn’t have high hopes when I first began At a Crossroads; it looked like yet-another-autobiographical-comic, in the subgenre of small-town life. Within a matter of pages, though, I was hooked in no small part thanks to Williamson’s writing. I think the turning point for me was when Williamson stated her other goals in addition to finishing her book: learning all the lyrics to the Hall & Oats album Rock ‘n Soul Part One, cleaning her room, and choreography for Madonna Live: The Virgin Tour. It’s at that point that it was clear that Williamson had just the right sense of humor about her life. She’s not taking it too seriously, laying out what’s happening to her in a slightly flip (yet truthful) way. That’s not to say that it’s not ever serious, of course. Williamson writing about the reactions she gets from family friends (as she lives at home longer and longer) is pretty interesting, bringing to life how people react to a situation that they don’t really comprehend. There’s also an undercurrent of Williamson’s own slight feelings of being uncomfortable and restless the longer that she lives at home. Towards the end of the book, as she’s returning from a cousin’s wedding, she remarks, "I was now the only member of my extended family above the age of eight who did not have a car, cell phone, or significant other." Matched with a beautiful watercolor of her plane looking small and isolated as it soars over mountains, it’s easy to feel the isolation in her authorial voice.

Williamson’s watercolors are, it should be pointed out, gorgeous. While her line drawings would be good on their own—they’re a little simplistic at a glance, but do a surprisingly good job with really capturing people’s body language and facial expressions—once she paints over to them, they really pop out at the reader. What’s great is that she applies these skills to all sorts of drawings, from staring out the window in a bus ride, to a cheesy dance at the local Sheraton. The colors are so rich and textured it’s hard to not just stare at the end result for a while, almost forgetting to read the word balloons or text on the page. Williamson also occasionally draws two-page "season breaks" (as I started calling them after a while), which is a really elegant way to not only break the book up into chapters, but to really bring across the passing of time.

When I finished reading At a Crossroads, within twelve hours I’d gone to my local bookstore and bought a copy of her earlier book A Year in Japan. I’m really excited to have read something as interesting and strong as At a Crossroads; Williamson’s story in other hands might have been slight, but I was nothing short of entranced. Whatever she’s going to work on next, I’ll absolutely take a look.

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