Exquisite Corpse
by Pénélope Bagieu

Note: Because of the nature of this book, I recommend you go in blind! I’ve hidden all spoilers and I’d also advise you don’t read the descriptions on the back of the book/online because they give away the majority of the plot and what’s the point of that!

This graphic novel follows Zoe, a 22-year-old stuck with a shitty job and a shitty boyfriend, as she meets Thomas, a mysterious writer…

▼ Click to reveal major spoilers

Thomas is very famous, but because Zoe doesn’t read and has never even set foot in a bookstore, she has no idea who he is. She likes that unlike her boyfriend, Thomas is interesting and kind, and in turn he likes that she has no idea who he is and that she inspires him to finally finish his new novel. They start a relationship and Zoe moves in with him without realising that the reason he lives like a weird recluse is because he faked his own death in order to save his failing career.

His editor/ex-wife is publishing his new novels as posthumously “found manuscripts” to great public interest. Despite her new role as a muse, Zoe is suddenly completely sidelined in Thomas’ life as his writing takes precedence.

In an attempt to get closer to him, Zoe tries to get into literature, which leads her to discover that he is supposed to be dead. Thomas’ ex-wife reveals to her that the whole scheme was her idea and that it was so successful Thomas got completely absorbed in his writing ambition and lost interest in their marriage.

Despite promising Zoe he would spend more time with her once he finishes his new novel, he keeps sidelining her. The story ends with Thomas’ ex wife and Zoe turning against him, publishing his new novel under Zoe’s name and riding off into the sunset as a happy couple.

There are a few flirty panels when the two women first meet but their relationship mostly comes as a surprise and ends up feeling like a quip (“Haha, the two scorned women should get with each other instead!”) rather than a serious exploration of their love for each other. It’s a fun quip, though!

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Would I recommend this book?
Yeah, but go in blind

The book reads more like a graphic short story than a graphic novel, relying more on the witty concept and its twists than on slow, meticulous execution. The plot moves fast, especially in the second half of the book, but the characters are convincing and expressive enough to carry the narrative even when it’s rushed and hyperbolic. Bagieu is also funny - I was especially entertained by the physical comedy surrounding Zoe’s job as a model.

The author said that she had been both of the main characters - the 20-something trapped in a dead end job, and the writer, obsessed with their creative process at the expense of everything else in their life. Those two characters are definitely granted more depth than the third (“She’s a bit of a mystery, even to me.”). The book also offers insight into celebrity culture (and how it eats famous people alive) that is both funny and bitter.

Exquisite Corpse may not be exactly a literary masterpiece, but it’s an endearing, entertaining read in its own right.