Stone Fruit, the debut graphic novel by comics artist Lee Lai, is a heartfelt story about two young women navigating the end of a relationship and the tension points between biological and chosen family. Lai does a marvelous job adapting the structure of young adult coming-of-age stories to the tumultuous years of our twenties, when many of us are still working out what kind of adults we hope to become.
This book centers on Ray, a young woman who’s part-time caretaker to her rambunctious young niece Nessie, and Bron, Ray’s fiercely imaginative, mentally ill girlfriend. Ray and Bron have decided to forge a life together, but their fresh start is complicated by existing family ties. For Ray, family means a strained relationship with her sister, Nessie’s mom, who is wary of Bron’s mental illness and perhaps her trans identity. Bron has her own complicated family of origin: religious conservative parents who have never fully accepted her as a trans woman, but also a younger sister who feels like Bron left her behind. When Bron decides to leave Ray and return home to her parents, both women find themselves reevaluating their familial relationships, unearthing trauma but also testing for the possibility of connection.
Stone Fruit feels like a novel that has the potential to be someone’s favorite book, appearing at the right moment for a reader facing any of the challenges that animate Ray and Bron’s lives: mental illness, a strained relationship with a sibling, an unexpected breakup, a first taste of aunthood. Though Stone Fruit is a breakup story, its melancholy is tempered by moments of joy and insight. Lai has a particular talent for capturing the mundane: life-altering conversations in nondescript restaurants; awkward breakups that end with running out into the street in your underwear; bad babysitting sessions powered by episodes of Peppa Pig. The understated storytelling meant that it took me a while to feel immersed in the story, but once I found my footing, I was deeply moved by this sharply observed snapshot of the human experience.
Lai’s art is terrific and will please fans of traditional media, with fluid brushwork and dreamy blue gouache. Simple four-panel pages put the emphasis on characters and text; the artwork is accomplished but never gets in the way of the narrative. Lai’s one bold artistic choice is her depiction of Ray, Bron, and Nessie during their babysitting romps—the three become monsters with reptilian skin and wicked teeth, a witchy image of female power that serves as a symbol for the kind of female-centered family that Ray and Bron want to create.
Stone Fruit is a strong choice for adult comics collections. I’d particularly recommend it to new adult readers looking for a narrative that speaks to their experiences; however, older adult readers will find just as much to enjoy here. Those purchasing for a young adult audience should be aware of the inclusion of nudity and a brief sex scene.
This title also delivers welcome representation of queer, trans, and Chinese diaspora experiences, adding breadth and inclusivity to graphic novel collections that have historically tended to exclude marginalized voices. Lai is a new voice to look out for, and her debut is well worth picking up.
By Lee Lai
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation: Australian, Canadian, East Asian, Trans
Character Representation: Chinese, Queer, Trans, Ambiguous Mental Illness