In The Great Outdoors, author Catherine Meurisse recounts her childhood growing up in a countryside home. Her parents decided to leave their city life for the country, and they never looked back, fostering in Catherine and her sister Fanny the same fondness for the outdoors.
The Great Outdoors
Catherine Meurisse (Writer and Artist), Cromatik Ltd (Letters), Matt Madden (Translation), Isabelle Merlet (Colours)
Europe Comics (English)
December 18, 2019
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For anyone with a green thumb, The Great Outdoors is a delightful read. Aside from the opening page, where we see panels of Meurisse’s sterile Paris apartment, the rest of the book is an ode to everything nature-related. Barely a page goes by that isn’t resplendent in flora and fauna, green or otherwise. We are also given incredible details about all the plants that the Meurisse family grow. Meurisse doesn’t just mention the kinds of fauna and flora that her parents bring into their new home—she explains how and why they grow, which ones should be planted next to each other, what will keep them alive, and what will kill them.
In that sense, The Great Outdoors is endlessly fascinating. Meurisse clearly has a deep and abiding love for greenery that is highlighted in every panel of this book. It’s great to see a creator so in love with their subject that it practically pops off the page. But it does come across as a bit much—page after page of descriptions about plants and gardening doesn’t make for the most exciting reading. Honestly, it didn’t really feel like this book had a direction.
Things happen but there seem to be no lasting consequences. We see capitalist mayors trying to build a city in the countryside. Evil industries spew toxic blood directly onto the Meurisse’s crops and fields. The Cold War ends and an influx of Romanian refugees bring music to the town. It feels like these events are going to change the town significantly and impact Meurisse’s life—perhaps explain to the reader why she has abandoned her beloved countryside for a dingy apartment in Paris.
Unfortunately, that is not how The Great Outdoors progresses at all. By the end of the book, the Meurisse farm is the way it always was—the countryside hasn’t changed either. The only visible change is in the size of the trees and the fact that Catherine and Fanny are now adults. This book feels like it was meant to be a journey of discovery—perhaps to teach readers why country living is pure and beautiful and worth investing in? That doesn’t come across to me. There is no journey to go on—because nobody really changes during the book.
I would have understood if the children were opposed to country living at the start of the book but changed their minds by the end. Instead, they were completely onboard with their new way of life almost from the moment they arrived. It would have been good to understand what was going through their minds during this transition period—how did the children feel about suddenly being confronted with acres of empty land, and being expected to help their parents bring life into it? How did they cope without the amenities of city life? The bathrooms in the country house were non-existent—that’s a pretty significant thing to have to become accustomed to. So, how did they do it? We never find out.
There are certain aspects of The Great Outdoors that I did enjoy—Catherine and Fanny taking inspiration from Pierre Loti’s memoirs to create their own museum was hilarious and charming. As someone who had a ‘library’ as a child, I understand and support this sentiment. And the items they include in the museum are cause for much hilarity; everything from the old nails they find buried in the fields to the dung of animals, ancient and new, make an appearance in the museum. I love that their parents never question the ‘artefacts’ they display, but instead leave the children to do their own thing. Understanding parents are the best.
The art in this book is great—very pastoral, but also cartoonish. The gorgeous colours made me feel like I was right there in the fields with the Meurisse family. I did find a few of the poses for the characters inappropriate, especially for little Catherine. I’m not sure what Meurisse was thinking with those angles, because I found them quite disturbing.
I can’t help but question what message readers are meant to take away from this book. That the countryside is perfect? That industry is bad and city life is awful? I can’t really agree with that—I’m a city person through and through, but I understand the appeal of the countryside and can appreciate the beauty of being surrounded by nature. But that’s not what comes through from this book and it left me feeling uncomfortable and unfulfilled.
More than anything else, The Great Outdoors was often boring and aimless. I came away with as little information about the characters as I began with. I wanted so much more from this memoir than I got and that disappointment is going to bother me for a very long while.