Tragedy strikes while Fabienne and her husband are on vacation. “Stay,” by Lewis Trondheim and Hubert Chevillard is a mediation on loss, grief, and the randomness of the world around us. Or, at the very least, is trying to be.
Written by Lewis Trondheim
Illustrated by Hubery Chevillard
Roland has the perfect vacation planned for Fabienne – everything is organized, booked, and paid for in advance, with the entire itinerary recorded in a notebook. It’s going to be a wonderful week where they can discuss their future together.
But before they can even get their luggage to their rental, Roland is decapitated in a freak accident. And Fabienne, stunned and alone, has no idea how to process it. So in her daze of denial, she decides to stay and follow the itinerary as planned, as if the tragedy never happened.
Ghost-like, she wanders the tourist-filled streets, a passive spectator to the joys of others’ lives. Along the way, she meets Paco, a local vendor with some eccentric views on life and death. Being rather private normally, it isn’t hard for her to lie about the companion that never seems to be there at that very moment, but Paco soon puts the pieces together. His minor fascination with bizarre deaths has him all too familiar with the tale of the recently decapitated tourist. And he realizes this woman needs a friend right now more than anything else. So they spend a platonic week off and on, neither of them talking about what happened.
And that seems to be precisely what she needs to process everything.
A moving and mesmerizing look at life, death, and the many different ways we cope with each, written by celebrated author Lewis Trondheim and illustrated by Hubert Chevillard.
The most effective moment of “Stay” comes in the first five pages. Fabienne and her husband Roland have just arrived in the town they’re vacationing in. Almost immediately after stepping out of their car, beginning their walk down the beach toward their hotel, Roland is decapitated by a loose metal sign taken by the wind.
It’s a moment that comes with little fanfare. One moment, Fabienne and Roland are walking down the beach chatting, he next moment, Roland doesn’t have a head. It’s not a gruesome scene. It’s as simple as a page turn, where the last panel on the previous page had a fully functioning, headed Roland, and the next just has a neck with nothing attached.
Much of “Stay” is told silently. Hubery Chevillard is given the space to tell this story without any sort of text on the page. Throughout the book, this works to varying levels of effect. It works best here at the very beginning, where the page transitions from a headless Roland to Fabienne’s face, shocked, expressionless. Then zooming to the crowd, the has gathered around them, before focusing in on Fabienne and Roland’s hands. Fabienne hasn’t let go yet, but from the angle of Roland’s arm, it’s clear that he’s collapsed.
This sequence, the silence of it and the perfect framing of each panel are able to convey perfectly the shock of this moment. The matter of fact way Roland’s decapitation is portrayed, and the expressionless shock of Fabienne’s face help hold you in the moment. As a reader, you feel what Fabienne is feeling. She is trapped in that moment, unsure of what’s happened, unable to really processes it, and so are you. And when the next page jumps to the police having arrived, talking and asking questions, you get the same sense of being lost as Fabienne.
The first ten pages of “Stay” are basically perfect. If this was a short story, it would be one of the best I had read all year. The sparse dialogue, the way it is able to convey shock and the random terror of the world around us, it’s perfect. “Stay,” though, then continues on for another hundred or so pages. None of which are bad, necessarily. But it never reaches the heights of this first sequence.
Part of that is because, what works so well in this first sequence, when stretched out over an entire graphic novel, begins to wear thin. The silent storytelling that is so effective in this first moment at portraying Fabienne’s shock is used throughout the story, trying to achieve the same effect. But there are only so many times a silent sequence of her, sitting in a crowd of people being happy while she stares expressionless into the distance can be employed before it loses most of its punch. By the third, fourth or fifth time, it’s just no longer effective. And once some change starts to happen, the story has gone on for too long for it to really be effective.Continued below
The main thrust of the story deals with Fabienne coming to terms with her husband’s death and figuring out what she wants to do with her vacation and life going forward. While she does spend quite a bit of the book in silent contemplation, she does eventually find a friend in the city she’s staying. The moments between Fabienne and Paco are well done. There is a strangeness to their interactions that is fitting with the strangeness of Fabienne’s trip. And these moments, where Fabienne is guarded, with Paco prodding at her, and the two of them becoming friends, are almost as good as those opening pages.
But so much of the book are just silent moments in crowds. It’s clear the effect “Stay” is going for. Some of the monotony and strangeness of these moments is on purpose. But if can’t be purposeful that, by the end of the book, I almost wanted to skip these textless pages, because they always did the same thing. There would be an event happening, Fabienne would be somewhere in a crowd, the book closes in on her, and then moves away. The first few times it’s moving, after that, it’s too much.
It’s not even that the art in these silent scenes isn’t good. The art throughout is beautiful and extremely well done. But at a certain point I want it to do something different. The silent scenes are great until you begin to notice the formula. And that’s true of “Stay” as a whole. It’s good book, in some moments great, in the opening fantastic. But as it goes on, it uses the same tricks a few too many times. As a whole, “Stay” ends up being good, but not great, for these reasons.