French Milk

By Lucy Knisley
208 pages, black and white
Published by Touchstone

The idea of journeying to another country for a month or so and just enjoying the new locale is an enticing one. No going to a job, no tight schedule, just renting an apartment and enjoying the culture and food. For that reason alone, when I first heard about French Milk by Lucy Knisley I thought that I needed to take a look at it. After I’d seen some of her online comics, though, French Milk moved from the "should take a look" list over to, "you need this book." As it turned out? I was right.

What’s nice about French Milk is that Knisley begins her trip diary not with going to Paris, but first traveling from Chicago to Albany to see her family. It lets you get an idea of not only what Knisley is like, but also her mother who is her main traveling companion. You see them in their element, from Knisley bidding her friends adieu and taking up smoking as to prepare for smoke-filled bars in Paris, to her mother and stepfather greeting her with the news that her childhood cat had died if she’d like to bury it.

Before too long, though, Knisley and her mother are off to Paris, and there the fun really begins. You can really divide French Milk up into a couple of major categories: eating, viewing art, vignettes of Parisian life, and Knisley’s own life and future. Because French Milk originally served as Knisley’s personal diary, it’s a close, intimate look at all of these; from her missing her boyfriend and worrying about what sort of job she can find, to looking at an art installation and noting that it looks like testicles, everything feels remarkably unfiltered and honest. Knisley’s honesty is part of what makes French Milk so much fun to read, because she’s clearly not holding back from start to finish. As a result it plunges you fully into the journey; it made me desperately want to take my own trip the more I read, because she does such a sharp job of bringing her own to life and opening readers’s eyes to all of the opportunities that await.

I was a little surprised at first to see that about a third of French Milk is photographs of Knisley’s, but the more I read of the book the more I appreciated their appearance. The photographs to me did several things: they were a strong reminder that this was a genuine travelogue, they allowed Knisley to sometimes share a single view or moment without having to build a story around them (although they often tie in to the travelogue comic on the facing page), and they gave me a deeper appreciation for Knisley’s skill as an artist. Comparing her photographs and her art, you can really see just how well she draws people with her smooth, graceful inks. Her art is mostly little snippets of moments with accompanying text; pieces of food they ate, portraits of the people around her, or sometimes Knisley and her mother taking in everything around them. They remind me a bit of artists like Aaron Renier, with a light and beautiful style that ends up being remarkably expressive.

French Milk is a book that makes me want to travel, and wish for hitting the lottery so that I could afford to just visit another city or country for a month or so and fully soak it in. It’s almost ironic that parts of French Milk involve Knisley worrying about her future and what she’s going to do. I think reading French Milk makes that answer clear—she is a skilled comic creator as well as travel writer, and both of those skills come across in her book. Knisley is definitely a creator to watch; she’s on her way towards greatness.

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