Saturday, June 16, 2012

Embroideries, by Marjane Satrapi (2005)

Graphic novels have become very popular during the past decade, though some still write them off as comic books for kids. People who call them that have probably never read a graphic novel. I am pretty new to the genre, I admit, Embroideries being only the third graphic novel I've read and the first by Marjane Satrapi. If there's someone who can show that the genre is not just for kids, it is Satrapi.

There's no real plot, but many conversations between several women while the men take their after lunch naps. The novel is autobiographical, starring Satrapi herself as one of the characters, and everyone else consists of members of her family. The main topics of conversation are love, sex, and marriage, with most of the marriages not working out very well for the women. One woman is arranged to marry a man many decades older than her, and when he tries to consummate their marriage she is so horrified that she runs away and hides at her aunt's house until her husband dies of old age. Another woman marries a man who lives in another country and is so busy he sends to their wedding a framed picture of himself. This marriage does not end very well either. Satrapi's characters are fed up with the conservative views their Iranian society holds towards women. The women as youths have naive ideas about love and marriage, ideas which are shattered once they face the reality of marriage in a society that doesn't give them much of a say in the matter. These are women who have been hurt and have learned their lesson. Some are happily married, it seems, while others are happily single.

Satrapi's art is simple, with only as much detail as necessary, but has a style that is uniquely hers. She draws in black and white only, in contrast to many popular comics and graphic novels. She avoids being flashy, but focuses more on the themes and ideas that fill her novel. This isn't to say the pictures don't add to the story. They are richly evocative of whatever mood Satrapi sets. Being black and white, the images contrast with the colorful nature of its cast. Doing so also helps Satrapi aim her work at a more mature audience.

Reading this reminded me of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, for the two novels share similar themes. In both we see life from the perspectives of multiple generations and from many different women. Both also don't have much of a plot, but instead focus on themes that thread the many different stories being told. We find that in both cases, in China and Iran, the women have limited rights when it comes to relations and marriage. There's an East/West dichotomy in both as well, though Satrapi seeks to sever that dichotomy, and perhaps Tan does too.

Embroideries, in being shorter, is much more focused than Tan's novel, meaning it deals with a smaller number of thematic issues. And I must add that this is definitely a novel for adults. There is no nudity, but there are some mature images and language. However, it is a very funny novel. Some of the humor comes from the shock value, but Satrapi's wit supplies most of the laughs. This is a novel about women's rights, and I think what it has to say stretches beyond Iranian borders. It certainly has many elements that are unique to Iranian culture, but sex, love, and marriage are universal themes. A controversial book in any culture, but worth reading.


  1. Hi Chris,

    What a great, thoughtful review, of what sounds like a very imaginative and descriptive book.

    I haven't come across either this, or the Amy Tan book that you mention, before, but I shall be adding them both to my reading list.

    Books which have a good descriptive narrative and delve into the depths of the human psyche, always interest me.

    When I discover books such as this, I always think back to to a great television play called 'Abigail's Party', which although far before your time, also centred entirely around the diverse and often revealing dialogue of four individuals.

    Thanks for a great post,


    1. Hi Yvonne,

      Satrapi is best known for her graphic novel, Persepolis, which was made into an animated movie and won an Oscar.

      I looked up Abigail's Party on Netflix, and there's a movie version of it directed by Mike Leigh. Looks like fun.

      Thanks for visiting and commenting!