Book Review: Tender by Beth Hetland

Tender, Beth Hetland’s first graphic novel, is a psychological thriller with a big dose of body horror. It is meant for adult audiences. Tender is about Carolanne, a young woman who lives in an apartment with her cat, and has some vague, mundane cubicle job. Carolanne isn’t concerned with her apartment, she isn’t concerned with her job, she isn’t even really concerned with her cat (to the detriment of the cat); instead, Carolanne is concerned with how she looks on social media. She is especially fixated on comparing her life to those of her friends. Carolanne longs to post pictures of the perfect boyfriend, the perfect wedding, and the perfect family, and she is willing to manipulate whomever she needs to, including herself, in pursuit of her fantasies.

Buy Tender by Beth Hetland

Tender opens with Carolanne and her husband, Lee, choosing baby names for the child they hope will soon be on its way. Within a page they are happily pregnant. Luckily, for fans of psychological thrillers, that happiness doesn’t last. The story steps back into the past where we begin to get an inkling of how Carolanne manipulates those around her. This is how Carolanne met her husband–At work, she likes Lee, the nice-enough, good-looking enough coworker in the cubicle next to hers. Instead of taking two steps to introduce herself, one rainy day Carolanne leaves her umbrella by her desk and waits for Lee to find her outside, see her soaked and shivering, and hopefully offer to share his umbrella. Her manipulation seems merely playful in the beginning, but her deceptions ratchet up over time. Carolanne begins to enjoy the illusions she creates more than her reality.

There are some moments that are simply heart wrenching. Consider the three panels where Carolanne stands alone in her apartment as her shadow grows longer and longer behind her. She doesn’t like waiting, but she will wait as long as needed to achieve her goals. One night, she prepares dinner and needs to wait for Lee to get home to serve her roast. She leans with one hand on the oven door, seemingly for an hour, waiting for the exact moment Lee will come home so that can be the precise moment she pulls out dinner. She draws plusses on all her failed pregnancy tests. She keeps a book of Memories that are all pictures cut and pasted from magazines. In what looks suspiciously like some sort of witchcraft, Carolanne climbs to the roof of her apartment building to burn her fake Memories scrapbook and throws the ashes to the wind. The entire story is a downward slide into the darkness of emotional greed and deception.

Hetland’s illustrations are often seemingly simplistic while showing off her great talents as an artist and sequential storyteller. Most of Tender is drawn with dark ink, but interspersed throughout are beautifully colored pages depicting Carolanne’s dreams. Those dreams are often filled with dread and jarring imagery. Imagine tugging on the little slab of loose skin next to your fingernail like Carolanne dreams one night. Now imagine pulling that piece of skin and it tears down the entire length of your finger. It is deep. It is bloody. It is an image that sticks, and it works as a metaphor for the entire book. Carolanne starts picking and doesn’t know when, or how, to stop. Beth Hetland finds all your vulnerable spots and starts to pull, to unravel, to force you along with an inevitable tale of loss. Tender’s story and imagery will stick with you for better or worse: it is damn near perfect.

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Greg Hammond

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