In her 20s, Sophie Lambda meets “Marcus,” an attractive actor, whom everyone seems to like, at a party. When she re-encounters him about a year later, they fall into an almost cornily dreamy relationship, or so opines Chocolat, the stuffed teddy bear who serves as sidekick in the graphic novel that Lambda uses to document the relationship. The fate of their union is clear from the book’s title—So Much for Love: How I Survived a Toxic Relationship. Though “Marcus” seems like a catch—glamourous, complimentary, kind, fun, and smitten with Lambda—readers know not to trust his initial over-the-top affection or his insistence on his previous girlfriend’s nuttiness. Lambda (a pseudonym) catches on more slowly, new as she is to the world of manipulative men.
When Marcus starts accusing Lambda of things that she is not doing and that he (in fact) is doing (like being unfaithful), she is unmoored and confused. After he has his first of many screaming fits, her mind scrambles. He tells her why his bad behavior is her fault and threatens, melodramatically, to jump off a balcony (but survives). Later, he tells her the neighbors have said something about her screaming. Wait, what? He was the one who …
Logic doesn’t really matter, of course, when it comes to such men, and none of the plot points of Sophie’s relationship are all that surprising. Even if you haven’t been romantically involved with someone like Marcus, you’ve likely read, say, the newspaper, where Putin accuses Ukraine of doing what … Putin is doing.
Lambda clearly wrote So Much for Love (published in her native France in 2019 and in 2022 in English, thanks to a translation by Montana Kane) as a way to process her experience and to warn others against manipulative men. Her story is upsetting; Lambda often depicts herself in a puddle of despair, her emotional torment externalized in the defeat on her face and ragged exhaustion of her eyes. Eventually, though, when she realizes how Marcus has played her, she is a raging woman.
Throughout, though, Lambda is funny with her teddy bear representing the self that knows, on some level, that things are off, even as she maintains the relationship for eight months, moving from her home in southern France to Paris to be with Marcus. Lambda’s also refreshingly self-critical (in a way that is honest rather than narcissistic as Marcus’s supposed self-hate is). She’s a person with good friends and strong family relationships, determined to address the insecurities that allowed her to be so seduced by Marcus in the first place.
Lambda’s graphic style is cartoony, fore-fronting faces and figures and simplified spaces, her imaginative efforts largely (though not exclusively) focused on depicting states of being. Even when she is collapsed in despair, her big-eyed self (appealing in the way a baby is appealing, more eye than face) always charms. Over the course of her 300-page book, she moves from personal narrative to psychological treatise, what’s she learned from a very helpful therapist and her subsequent reading, and, finally, she sets out to educate readers on manipulators and perverse narcissism. Though she has managed to get away from Marcus, the bad experience leaves her uneasy about new entanglements. She also realizes that others are not always able to eliminate the perverse narcissists in their life, especially if they are co-parenting or biologically related. She concludes her books with behavioral tips, admitting that she hasn’t always been able to take her own advice to minimally engage and maintain a studied neutrality to avoid going down the rabbit hole with a difficult person. Still, she tries and largely succeeds.
The graphic novel ends with resources for individuals who find themselves in an abusive relationship and an ideal epigraph for this particular book—an endorsement from Maeve, the woman who was involved with Marcus after Lambda. Maeve writes, “I found an unexpected refuge in the virtual arms of this chick who had been there before me. Spoiler alert: yes, she’s the author of this graphic novel.” Given Marcus’s irrational jealousy, his tendency to badmouth past girlfriends, and his habit of seeing several women at once, it’s deeply satisfying to close Lambda’s debut book and then imagine a sisterhood of his exes freezing him out while they enjoy friendships with one another.
Debra Spark’s fifth novel, Discipline, will be published in 2024. She teaches at Colby College and in Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers.