Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel
by Anya Ulinich
Even for the most resolutely child-free among us, it’s easy enough to conjure up some version of the Brooklyn Parent. Partly due to real life interactions on the streets of, say, Park Slope, in which the Brooklyn Parent hovers over his or her special snowflake of a child, and partly due to fictional representations in novels such as Julia Fierro’s Cutting Teeth, in which obnoxious stereotypes abound and are tacitly (and predictably) promoted, the Brooklyn Parent has become a two-dimensional punchline, something no self-respecting person would ever want to be.
Except, you know, self-respecting people are parents in Brooklyn, and have complicated, multi-faceted lives apart from their role as parents. But those types of people have been conspicuously absent from contemporary literature, which is why I have spent no small amount of time wondering who would save the Brooklyn Parent from its superficial prison. And now it seems like the answer has finally arrived in the form of Anya Ulinich. With her beautifully rendered, impossibly funny, and at times heart-breaking graphic novel Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, Ulinich does something I had started to think was impossible: she shatters the trope and reinvents the notion of what it means to be a Brooklyn Parent.
In many ways, Lena Finkle is an eminently recognizable modern protagonist; she’s looking for love, disillusioned by financial struggles, has a troubled though ultimately loving relationship with her Russian immigrant parents, and has lots of really bad—and sometimes really good—sex. She is also a divorced mother of two girls who are bright and funny and happy but who are—and this is important—not the center of their mother’s universe. Instead, it is Lena Finkle who is the center of her own universe. And it’s not because she’s a narcissist or because she neglects her children, rather it’s because she’s an adult woman who can do and be more than one thing at a time. Lena Finkle can be a good mom and be someone who has sex with a slightly creepy guy she meets on OKCupid. Lena Finkle can be a good mom and have Skype-sex with her married, still-in-Russia high school boyfriend. Lena Finkle can be a good mom and make tons of mistakes and tons of good decisions because that is what all women can do, even if it doesn’t get written about that often, if at all.
Ulinich’s Lena Finkle isn’t just a repudiation of what we’ve been told is necessary to be a successful parent, she is also a repudiation of what we’re told we ought to be as successful women. Lena has messy, heartbreaking relationships. She has one-night stands with sketchy men with bad teeth and too many cats. She has vengeful thoughts about her ex-husband. But that’s ok. That’s real. Lena’s life is difficult—often ugly, but frequently beautiful. And in creating Lena, Ulinich has given us a respite from the facile representations of both Brooklyn parents and Brooklyn women, instead granting us access to a life that is beautiful not in spite of, but because of its complexity and its pain. Finally.