REVIEW: Closing the Gaps in Queer Storytelling in Stone Fruit by Lee Lai

Lee Lai’s debut graphic novel Stone Fruit follows an overworked thirty-something named Ray as she ends her relationship with her girlfriend Bron and rekindles her friendship with her sister Amanda. Ray and Bron were at their most loving and creative while babysitting Amanda’s energetic six-year-old daughter Nessie, but they’ve drifted apart as their differences become irreconcilable. Stone Fruit is an earnest and painfully honest story that follows Ray and Bron through their daily lives as they reflect on their decisions and learn how to be the people they are when they’re not together.

Stone Fruit

Lee Lai
Fantagraphics
May 1, 2021

The front cover of the hardcover edition of the graphic novel Stone Fruit. The monochromatic ink drawing with a blue watercolor wash shows the protagonists, Ray and Bron, walking a step apart from one another with Ray's niece Nessie playing at being a monster as she runs between them.
Stone Fruit by Lee Lai, published in May 2021 by Fantagraphics

At the beginning of Stone Fruit, Lai’s art is wild and dynamic as Ray and Bron run through the park with Nessie, wolflike in appearance as they hunt phantom dogs and sing nonsense songs at the top of their lungs. This dynamic playfulness is a powerful contrast to more realistic art that follows, which initially feels cold and unyielding. The blue-hued monochromatic ink drawings show every worry line on the characters’ faces. Lai’s art does not go out of its way to render its protagonists as unusually attractive or sympathetic. After they lose the energy of the wild chase that opens Stone Fruit, Ray and Bron look as tired as they feel.

Although Ray and Bron’s breakup is highly specific to their relationship, the uncomfortable situations they encounter will be relatable to many readers who have been marked as “different,” queer or otherwise. After she leaves Ray, Bron returns to her conservative Christian family, who will only accept her as long as she doesn’t draw attention to herself. Bron’s time with her family is saturated with the feeling that she’s only barely tolerated, and that her allies will abandon her as soon as their allyship becomes uncomfortable. Meanwhile, Ray’s sister Amanda becomes more sympathetic after she apologizes for her borderline homophobic comments about Bron. Amanda’s words are inexcusable, but her explanation for her behavior will resonate with anyone who’s ever been jealous and lashed out in a moment of weakness without really meaning what they say.

Stone Fruit explores the awkwardness of navigating mundane problems as a queer adult after the sparkle has faded from the rainbow. For Ray and Bron, this includes the complications of an interracial relationship in which differences at first seemed attractive but later became hindrances to communication. These complications have less to do with “identity” as an abstract concept and instead stem from small but concrete gaps in lived experience that can become impossible to bridge as people grow apart. As Ray explains:

“For the first couple of years, the differences between me and Bron made us voracious. As if they made up this great sprawling landscape that we could flood across, towards each other. So much ground to cover. It kept us up at night – trying to reveal and examine all the pieces that seemed totally alien, totally fascinating. Later on, that big space became all mixed up with lethargy, and something like hopelessness. Like there was no amount of storytelling that would close the gap.”

Ray is especially frustrated by Bron’s decision to leave the haven of their shared apartment in order to reconnect with her homophobic family. It ends up being Ray’s straight sister Amanda who is able to explain Bron’s mindset from the perspective of a divorced single parent – it’s exhausting to feel as though you have to be a special and unique person cut off from your family and your roots. These conversations with Amanda help Ray develop a deeper appreciation for what it means to be in a long-term relationship, where not everything can stay wild and exciting and fresh and different forever.

Page 98 of Stone Fruit contains four monochromatic panels in which Ray’s sister Amanda lectures her on the importance of showing up for the people you love.
Stone Fruit, page 98

Stone Fruit can be grim and difficult to read at times. The characters say hurtful things that derail their attempts to connect with one another, and the greater pain of Ray and Bron’s breakup is eclipsed by many small moments of acute awkwardness. In the midst of this discomfort, it’s easy to miss the fun and free-spirited monster drawings at the beginning of the book. Thankfully, the initial excitement of the fantastic wolf chase is gradually replaced by a deeper emotional investment as the reader becomes comfortable with Lai’s art, which depicts the characters as nothing more or less than themselves. The emotional catharsis at the conclusion of Stone Fruit is well worth the journey, as is the empathy that the reader comes to develop for characters who initially seem callous and unfeeling.

Stone Fruit won the 2021 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Artist, which “recognizes exceptional work that challenges popular notions of what comics can achieve.” Lee Lai’s nuanced exploration of her characters’ wild inner hearts within the context of their mundane daily lives is indeed exceptional. Stories of queer love and romance are important, but so too are stories of queer loss, queer families, and the process of aging into the wisdom of queer adulthood.

Kathryn Hemmann

Kathryn Hemmann

Kathryn is a Lecturer of East Asian Studies at University of Pennsylvania. They live at the center of a maze of bookshelves in Philadelphia.

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