Anya Ulinich's 2008 debut novel Petropolis, marked her out as a master of tragicomic romance; now she's back with a huge, hilarious, bitter graphic novel about sex, immigration, the Russian soul, and heartbreak. Cory Doctorow reviews Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel: A Graphic Novel.

Lena Finkle is a successful first novelist with a failed marriage and two small daughters. Her marriage to her second husband, Josh, has collapsed in spectacular fashion, leaving her in a tiny Brooklyn apartment with her girls, her gig teaching a terrible writing course, and her contract to produce a novel that's not really going anywhere.

Finkle came to America to Russia as a young girl, getting out of the Soviet Union in the chaos of Glasnost and Perestroika, landing in Phoenix with her family, who are sponsored by Hasidic Jews who undertake to train her to be properly Jewish, something she has virtually no experience of, despite her technical Jewishness. Her life has been a darkly comic series of bad choices, overbearing parents, two bad marriages, and a marvellous love of literature that has translated into a kind of micro-celebrity and a huge dose of anxiety about her second book.

Though this is Ulinich's first graphic novel, she makes the most of the form, with a style that's reminiscent of the wonderful Lynda Barry in both line and tone. As Finkle sets out to define herself on her own terms, separate from her long-pined-for Russian boyfriend and her two disastrous husbands, she is initiated into the world of Internet dating. Ulinich handles this with deft comedy, introducing us to a series of men broken in their own way, viewed through the telescopic lens of an immigrant who has absorbed American-ness at too late an age for it to disappear into the background.

The book takes off in the second act, when Finkle meets the love of her life (so far), a man she calls The Orphan, who has so many quirks, both lovable and terrible, that he can't possibly be good for her. The story of their romance is genuine, moving, silly, sexy, and, ultimately (and unsurprisingly), awful. This sets the stage for a rather marvellous third act, a story of incomplete redemption and salvaged dignity, striking the same chord of partial victory and semi-sweet success that makes this book ring so true and evoke so many complicated and uncomfortable chuckles.

Ulinich's story is ably propelled by her fantastic use of the graphic form, through a series of interludes and flashbacks that use the busy, scribbled page to advance the story in ways that mere words could not attain on their own. And she's not shy about using prose where prose works best, sometimes filling whole pages with hand-lettered, novelistic text. It feels like Ulinich asked herself whether she was a cartoonist or a novelist and decided to be both at the same time. It was a good decision.

-Cory Doctorow