At first glance, love, loss, and astrophysics don't seem like they'd have all that much in common, but in Thomas Von Steinaecker's new graphic novel The Summer of Her Life, the three concepts are woven together as brilliantly as the very threads of our universe. The resulting story is as fantastical as any science fiction or superhero tale, elevating the ordinary beauty and tragedy of a human life to something that is rooted in the regular and expansive as reality itself.
The Summer of Her Life, at its heart, is the story of one woman's reflection on her life as she nears its ending. The book follows Gerda Wendt, an elderly woman living in a care home when we meet her at the comics' start. As readers follow her days, they also receive a long look back at her life and how many of Gerda's experiences seem to have come full circle. Always a bit of an outsider and "invisible" compared to those with more mainstream interests as a youth, in her old age Gerda feels invisible once again. Readers see her wander about the nursing home, confused as to what floor she's on, we see others caring for her when she is unable to do so. At the same time her inner-thoughts reveal how she went from invisible girl to accomplished scientist followed by the heartbreak of becoming invisible all over again. Love, loss, astrophysics—they all play a role in each chapter of Gerda's story.
While that may sound quite heavy or even bleak, Van Steinaecker has managed instead to tell a story that is light and gentle. It is never far from the reader's mind where Gerda's story in The Summer of Her Life will end. There are whispers in the opening pages that when readers close the book Gerda, too, will be closing the book of her life. Yet, somehow, the story is never sad. It's raw, it's real, and at times it's very precise—Van Steinaecker's spare and sharp storytelling maintains an outstanding scientific feel without becoming cold and clinical. Nothing feels varnished here. Gerda's reflections on her life are honest and expansive, making it all the more moving when juxtaposed with how confined her present days have become.
While Van Steinaecker's efficient and elegant storytelling is brilliantly accomplished, it's Barbara Yelin's exquisite art that gives the entire comic its sense of gravity and place. The comics' color palette leans on hues of blue and green, which offer a soothing feel, but also deliver a cosmic sensibility at times. Gerda's story, from the beginning, is written in the stars thanks to her professional interests and Yelin's art reflects that. Yelin uses this palette to create a visual story that captures Van Steinaecker's words while telling a tale of its own spanning the twilight of day and twilight of life.
The Summer of Her Life is an aching tale beautifully told. Through Van Steinaecker's well-chosen words and Yelin's fluid, graceful art, the journey of life—from ambition and heartbreak to the inevitable end of the road—feels less like mourning and more like a celebration. It is a beautiful comic book that stands as a gentle reminder of the multitudes contained in all lives, even as we exist as tiny specks of light in the universe's grand scheme.
Published by SelfMade Hero
On May 26, 2020
Written by Thomas Van Steinaecker
Art by Barbara Yelin