Book Review

Girl From Mars by Julie Cohen

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Title: Girl From Mars
Author: Julie Cohen
Publication Info: Little Black Dress 2009
ISBN: 978-0755341399
Genre: Contemporary/Other

Book CoverGirl From Mars is a story in a story, about a female comic book character who is brave and isolated, honest and ferocious, and about 50+ years old. Philomena Brown, or “Fil” for short, is the artist who has for a few years been drawing her comic idol, the Girl from Mars, as her job. Many people think that “Fil Brown” is a man, and are surprised and often dismissive of a female comic artist when they meet her.

Fil has blue hair, is very standoffish and socially awkward, is incredibly and impossibly talented, is a woman in a very male-dominated profession, and is a layered character of complexity and confusion – both in that she is often confused, and that she can confuse the reader, too. The blue-haired iconoclast is a bit like Lisbeth Salander, except that, if you insulted her, instead of hacking your computer and cutting you like a pig like Lisbeth would, Fil would retreat and later draw something horrifically violent and very satisfying happening to you. Frame by frame. Over multiple pages, so as to savor every scene.

Fil lives a very prescribed life: she has her friends, Digger, Stevo and Jim, and she has weekend marathons of The X-Files, plays Dungeons and Dragons regularly, and is part of the reigning champion team of Trivia at the local pub. Her life has a schedule and a very limited social order, and she’s very comfortable with that, because Fil is not comfortable with people she doesn’t know. Given her limited sphere, that means she’s not comfortable with most of humanity.

When she zones out during a staff meeting and misses her boss’s explanation of what changes are coming for Girl From Mars, she thinks she might have missed something important, but pushes aside the feeling and gets back to work. So she’s knocked flat on her ass by the arrival of Dan, an American writer who specializes in romantic comedies, and who is the grandson of Girl From Mars’ creator. She doesn’t like Dan, she doesn’t like his ideas, she doesn’t like what’s going to happen to her character, her idol, her secret best friend, this comic heroine, and she doesn’t like having to step out of her routine, the one where she doesn’t have to think or do any sticky interactions with other people who are pesky and confusing.

From about the midpoint of the book until the end, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of “COME ON ALREADY.” The plot was moving, but the heroine was going in circles, letting things happen to her, being afraid, making mistakes, not learning from them, and going in another circle again. She was doing the same things, so why was everything different? Why was everything changing?

One of her best friends harbors feelings for her that she doesn’t notice, or willfully disregards, and I couldn’t tell which. At one point she says she knew and at another she’s utterly mystified by the idea. The possibility that she never really knew about his feelings matches her general confusion with social interaction, social cues and dealings with people in general. The possibility that she knew and suppressed it makes me angry at her, and makes me think less of her character.

Fil wants to be like Girl from Mars. She identifies with the isolation of the character, and in a way her art, her talent and her absolutely overwhelming creative drive are her superpower. But Fil also isolates herself because, as she says repeatedly, if nothing changes, no one gets hurt. Of course, everything changes and you can’t stop that.

What frustrated me most with Fil, and the story is very much about Fil and a lesser extent about Dan, is how she doesn’t take steps for herself, doesn’t go after what she wants, and almost remains childlike in her insistence on the status quo being permanent. She’s insecure, easily confused, very vulnerable and tremendously talented and unique – and just about everyone in her life, except for Dan, takes care of her in one way or another. Her friends are her social routine and pseudo-parents. Her housemate knows that when she’s creating the art for the next comic that she’s in her own world. Her friend knows to make sure she gets some sort of vitamin when she’s in full-on creative mode… she’s cared for by her very tight circle of friends and doesn’t really have to grow up or grow forward.

So when she starts kissing Dan, she almost seemed too innocent to be doing even that. I read her as so much younger than she is because of all that developmental reluctance, and her strides forward toward the end of the story were so limited I didn’t know if she’d truly grown up or not.

I’m trying to think of an example that won’t give away crucial plot elements. Fil has a very rough relationship with her parents, for one thing, as her parents are both academics who seem to have little to no understanding of their daughter’s passion with comics and art, who spend all their time in their world of literary theory and debate. But suddenly, after a few awkward and stilted visits with them, Fil’s parents reveal that they do understand her, they do appreciate the narrative art she’s passionate about, and that they are proud of her—and Fil accepts this change of status and a reinvention of her entire perception of her parents without fuss. The ORLY owl has more shock and reaction than Fil.

One of the hallmarks of Girl From Mars (the comic book character) is that she routinely chooses everyone else over herself, puts the greater good and the balance of peace and happiness as a much higher priority than her own joy and completion. This is the stuff of endless sequels for heroic characters, but the stuff of frustration for heroines who are meant to be real and empathetic. Fil does that very thing, puts everyone else above herself for so long, for reasons of such deep insecurity, that when she finally learns to grab the steering wheel of her own life in her own hands, I don’t really know that she knows how to hold on and drive it. I half-fear that she’d pass the wheel to someone else, because it’s too big and scary to drive, and easier to let someone else chauffeur her some more.

I liked reading about a heroine SO different from the norm, who cultivates an iconoclastic image to camouflage her own confusion when dealing with humanity. If normal social interaction is like having brown hair, rather than pretend she knows how, Fil will dye her hair as far into the spectrum of isolation as she can. I was in awe of her talent and really enjoyed the scenes where she was creating, explaining the steps and process of writing a comic. I also adored the ways in which Fil explained to Dan the difference between film and comics, and narrative and comics, how telling a story one frame at a time means making choices of how much to reveal and how much to conceal – or give up entirely. Fil is an expert in her field, and amazingly good at creation in her chosen medium, and her exploration, creation, and explanation of comics was easily the best part of the book.

But her coming to terms with real relationships was not as satisfying. I rooted for her, but by the end of the book, my admiration for this individual was tempered with pity for how stubbornly she clung to her own insecurities and lack of self-esteem. My desire to cheer her own was also greatly diminished by the moments of, “Oh, honey, come on now. Get ahold of yourself and grow up already.” If Fil were a comic book heroine, there would be room for many, many more issues for her to slowly, frame-by-frame, work out more of her, well, issues.


Little Black Dress is available from Amazon.com, Book Depository, and Powells.

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Linsalot says:

    Sounds like an interesting and different story.  Your description of Fil’s character reminds me of my cousin who has Aspergers, the only difference being that he’s a man and he writes for a paper not a comic book.

  2. 2
    JamiSings says:

    Hey! Someone finally wrote a book with a character a lot like me! Does she also enjoy Glenn Miller and Star Trek? LOL

    Seriously, the whole isolation thing and people caring for her to where she’s childlike is so much like me it’s scary. Except I’m a singer and I can’t draw to save my life. More comfortable on the stage then interacting with real people. My job at the library has been a huge challenge because so many people want to talk and chat and at the end of the day – I fake it, but I’m not comfortable with it.

    The difference is – I’d probably purposely piss Dan off to drive him out of my life.

    That being said – I get the feeling there’s something seriously psychologically wrong with Fil if she’s so withdrawn. Perhaps the book would’ve come off better if part of her schedule was a daily trip to a therapist. Like all those times Monk was seeing Dr. Kroger and later Dr. Bell.

  3. 3
    Ann Bruce says:

    I second the Asperger’s syndrome.  She sounds like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, but slightly emo and without his confidence.

  4. 4
    peggy h says:

    I enjoyed the book, though I also felt beyond frustrated with Fil at some points.  Also, while I think this book was not meant to be a romance but more of general fiction, I have to admit I was disappointed with the ending as (trying not to give spoilers here) I feel she ended up with the “wrong” man.  Though I think the relationship the book ended with is not likely to last, so I imagine that she will then move on to the other one that I think will result in a true HEA for her….just IMHO.  But I still enjoyed Girl from Mars (as I have all of Julie’s books that I’ve read) and stayed up all night reading her last one—Nina Jones and the Temple of Gloom.

  5. 5
    Susan C says:

    When I began reading the description of Fil, I immediately thought Asperger’s Syndrome, too.  Doing the same thing over and over and being surprised when it STILL doesn’t work, especially in social situations, is very Asperger’s.  I want to read this book!

  6. 6
    Mezza says:

    Just on the review above, I read either aspergers syndrome or abuse victim into Fil’s character and not just because that is what she sounds like in a clinical sense but because the description of Fil applies to people I know who live both of these realities. I think if I read this book I would feel that something was missing if either of these things wasn’t addressed.  Not what you want to hear for a story about a heroine who is different I know but is would feel to me as if something was being skimmed over.

  7. 7
    yara_Buddy says:

    The book sounds interesting especially the description of the Fil’s character in which makes me excited to have one. I ma fond of reading different, extraordinary plot of stories and I guess, I should have this one. I am excited with this one because I want to learn more about the other possible personalities of a person. Thank you for sharing this one.

  8. 8
    AgTigress says:

    Asperger’s Syndrome, without a doubt.  I had come to that conclusion by the third paragraph of the review, and was actually expecting a revelation at some stage when Fil, or another character, comes to the conclusion that that’s why she is the way she is!  So many of the characteristics that seem inexplicable to those of us who do not have that condition are not only ‘normal’ for the heroine, but are very likely beyond her power to change.  The other point that struck me in the summary of the character is her age:  she is very likely menopausal on top of everything else.
    I am intrigued that the author should have decided on such an atypical heroine, and she deserves a gold star for that, if nothing else.  :)

  9. 9
    Tina C. says:

    AgTigress:

    The other point that struck me in the summary of the character is her age:  she is very likely menopausal on top of everything else.

    I read that the same way and had to go back and look again because I was wondering for a moment what a 50+ woman was doing with someone’s grandson.  Fil has only been the artist for the comic book character for a few years.  Dan is the grandson of the original artist of the comic book character.

  10. 10

    Joining all the others here who’ve mentioned Asperger’s. My 12-year-old daughter has it, and the descriptions of Fil sound so much like my daughter it’s scary. The dependence on routine, high intelligence that’s filtered into just one or two near-obsessions, social difficulties, etc. are all hallmarks of Asperger’s.

    I’d actually kinda like to read this one, first because I’ve always been intrigued by comic book characters (created a few in my younger years, which dwell in my filing cabinet with all my other “trunk stuff) and also because I want to see how Fil’s presented throughout the novel. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing something with an MC with Asperger’s, and it sounds like that’s what’s happened here, intentionally or not, so I’d love to see how it’s executed.

  11. 11

    @AgTigress and Tina C.:
    I’m not seeing where it says *Fil* is 50+… it says “a female comic book character who…is 50+ years old.” I took that to mean the character the Girl from Mars is over 50, not Fil.

  12. 12
    SB Sarah says:

    Fil isn’t 50- Girl from Mars, the comic character, is. I’m sorry for the confusion.

    Thank you for the comments that are allowing me to look again at the heroine as someone with Aspergers, which obviously I am not familiar with enough to recognize by description alone. If that was Cohen’s intention, it adds another layer of meaning to the title and the comic character, in that Fil must often feel as if she is from another planet where everyone else knows how to interact except for her.

  13. 13
    Julie Cohen says:

    See, this is absolutely fascinating. 

    I didn’t specifically mean to write Fil with Asperger’s…if that had consciously been an issue for me, I would have discussed it in some way in the book.  I based her more on a geek culture which I’m familiar with, and on the idea of running away from your own life by immersing yourself in fiction (which is a recurring idea in the books I write, and the books I like to read).

    But I’m fascinated by Asperger’s, I’ve read several books on the subject, and as a teacher, I’ve worked with Asperger’s kids.  And I can definitely say, now that it’s pointed out, that Fil shares some, though not all, of these traits.  I just this morning finished reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, and while Fil is definitely NOT a Lisbeth Salander, I can see some parallels in the ways they choose how they look, and in their comfort with social interactions.

    I disagree with you, Sarah, about whether Fil takes the wheel in her own life—I think she does learn and change a lot—but then again, I would, right?

    Thanks for this really interesting discussion, guys.  What a treat to have a character dissected and analysed in this intelligent way, and to see how something I’ve written might have parallels in real life.  I might not have meant Fil to have Asperger’s, but if a reader can identify with her story because of that, that’s one of the best things an author can ask for.

  14. 14
    Cat Marsters says:

    Blimey, did I read a different book with the same cover on?

    I didn’t get any indication of Aspergers or anything similar from Fil: what I read into her was that she was just shy, and not interested in mainstream culture. And I didn’t think she made the same mistakes over and over or didn’t learn from them; quite the opposite.

    As a fellow geek-girl who is cripplingly shy and likes dying her hair odd colours, I’m starting to wonder if I have undiagnosed psychological problems I ought to look into…

  15. 15
    AgTigress says:

    Sorry I misread the age of the comic character as the age of the protagonist.  Will have to pay more attention and do only one thing at a time…
    ;-)

  16. 16
    Ann Bruce says:

    @Cat Marsters – I don’t classify Asperger’s syndrome as a psychological problem because most people with it function just fine in society, which is why I object to calling it Asperger’s disorder.

    I probably have a mild form of it myself (or at least people who know me claim it to be so) because I NEED my routine to the point that deviating from it can make me anxious; I am a hermit and am perplexed by the social interactions around me; I have quirks that make people raise their eyebrows, such as my germophobia (airport security guards laugh at me for remaining on my tiptoes when I take off my shoes and for wiping my feet with sanitizing wipes before putting my shoes back on)—and my almost encyclopedic knowledge of comic books (really, my encyclopedic knowledge of a lot of useless trivia; how many people complain about Jeopardy being too easy?); and, not to be immodest, but I am intelligent (sometimes too much for my own good, having annoyed classmates who weren’t strategic enough to partner with me for group work).

    At 30, I’m still learning how to interact with others because there are social rules that continue to confound me.  And I’m told I can never be a manager because I expect too much of people, even though I only expect of them what I expect of myself, and lack a filter between brain and mouth.  Honesty, apparently, is not always the best policy.  Good thing techno-geeks are almost as well paid as managers.

  17. 17
    Ann Bruce says:

    Oh, and some people just call me neurotic.

  18. 18
    JamiSings says:

    Ann – You sound a bit like me. I’m not germaphobic, though I always carry hand sanitizer and use it. But socializing does confound me. I am the queen of useless trivia. Go ahead, ask me the various ways, besides the usual Hollywood & book ways, to become, kill, or repel a vampire. Have tons of song lyrics memorized. (And usually by the third time through listening to a song I can pick up most of it.) Would rather spend time on the internet or reading a book and listening to music then talking to people.

    Drives my mom, who’s VERY social and can talk to anyone crazy. I take iPods and books with me out to dinner and rarely talk.

    Though truthfully I can, if someone else breaks the ice, talk a lot, and like you I have no filter. I give my opinion and mom says one of these days I’ll get beaten up for that.

    Maybe we should form a club and call ourselves Fil’s Girls. Only problem is – how can people who don’t care to socialize form a club? LOL

    I REALLY want to read this book but it’s not available in the library and it’s NOT on the ILL list! Except in other countries! So, even though I’m trying to not purchase anything online for awhile I guess I’m shelling out some money to Amazon.

  19. 19
    Inga says:

    I couldn’t disagree more with the rating given to Girl from Mars.  I thought it was one of the most original, unusual romances that I’ve read in a long time.  I did not read Fil as having Asperger’s, although I did wonder about some of the secondary characters.  I read it as being about geeks, geek culture, and especially the world of graphic literature.  I loved the peek into that world, as it’s not one that I know much about, and I love learning new things in the novels that I read.  Fil certainly has issues, as do her group of geek friends, but they all struggle and learn and have changed by the end of the book.
    The only thing that I didn’t like much was the depiction of the hero.  I didn’t feel by the end of the book that I knew him at all.  He seemed much more like a cardboard character than any of Fil’s male friends.
    Julie Cohen is now a favourite writer for me—all her books that I’ve read so far have unusual heroines and interesting settings.

  20. 20
    Kirsten says:

    I am surprised that the author didn’t intend to write a character with Asperger’s- even the title seemed like a clue to me that that was a factor.

    Asperger’s is not a psychological condition. It is a neurological condition.

  21. 21
    Julie Cohen says:

    You guys have made me think a lot about my character in the past 24 hours. My inclination, after pondering, is to say that I personally don’t think Fil has Asperger’s.  I think she actually goes a bit the other way—she’s a bit *too* sensitive in her empathy and in her readings of social situations, which means she can read them wrongly.  I think that everyone feels, at some point, that they are outsiders and that everyone else knows rules that they don’t.  I feel that way a lot, especially since I’ve started writing and living in my own head so much.  I also suspect that a lot of the time, everyone else in the room feels pretty much the same way.  Fil hasn’t learned that trick yet.

    Specialisation in a skill or interests, knowledge of trivia, obsession, loyalty to a tribe and adherence to routine, are all ways of dealing with uncertainty, and I think many, many people do these things.  They are traits you find in people on the autistic spectrum, but that’s because they’re above all, human traits.

    Though again—if someone finds something useful about Asperger’s, or isolation, or outsiderdom, or comics, or really anything in my book, I’m thrilled.

    Anyway, I’ll stop whittering on now.  Thanks for the review, Sarah, and for the discussion, everyone, and thanks Cat, Peggy and Inga for your kind comments about the book.

  22. 22
    JamiSings says:

    @Julie – You know, the more you post, the happier I am that I shelled out the money to buy this last night. Hope Amazon hurries up!

    I can totally relate to feeling out of place. Even though I’m an overweight, Star Trek watching, comic book reading, lives with her parents at 33, Barry Manilow fan I don’t even fit in with my fellow geeks very well! (I have to make fun of myself. That’s how I prevent anyone from doing it first.)

    I think I’m really going to enjoy this book.

  23. 23

    @Julie, I think it’s great that you stopped by and posted here to share your thoughts about our thoughts.

    Like I said, my first thought about Fil (without having read the book, so based only on this review) is that she’s a dead ringer personality-wise and behaviorally for my daughter who has Asperger’s, which was why I made that conclusion. However, you’re right that *humans* in general tend to have some of those characteristics as well.

    And @Kirsten, high fives on that… Asperger’s and other forms of autism are not psychological.

  24. 24
    Marianne McA says:

    It never crossed my mind that she might have Aspergers when I read it: I can see why the review might prompt that speculation, but it’s not something I saw in the book at all.

    One of the things I loved about the book was that it’s the first romance in just about forever where I was genuinely unsure who the heroine would end up with. (The blurb may give it away: I avoid blurbs, where possible.) FWIW, after changing my mind several times, I plumped for entirely the wrong character as hero.  Which made me completely happy: I love being wrong-footed by an author.

  25. 25
    JamiSings says:

    @Kareena & Kisten – I don’t think anyone actually suggested Aspergers was a psychological condiction. I think they were saying it either was Aspergers OR a psychological condiction. Like maybe Fil was abused as a child either by her parents or sexually abused by another adult. I know some of the reasons I have such a hard time with dealing with relationships is because of abuse in my past.

    That’s how I read it anyway. It was an either/or – or possibly a combination of both. Perhaps she had both Aspergers AND was the victim of abuse.

    I, personally, thought she was an abuse or even rape victim when I was reading the review. Only because I don’t know anyone IRL with Aspergers – I know a couple of young boys with Autism from my work and that’s it. So I related it to what I know. Which is why I thought it might’ve helped Sarah grade the book higher if Fil was seen with a shrink now and again talking things over.

  26. 26
    Cat Marsters says:

    Yeah, but there’s nothing in the book to suggest Fil has been abused in any way.

    Usually, I find some agreement in SBTB reviews. This time, I found myself wondering if I’d read the same book. Wondering what on earth was implied in Girl From Mars that suggested these extreme conditions.

    Fil’s a geek. She’s shy. Her parents are academics who don’t even understand mainstream culture, let alone geeky niches like sci-fi comics; the rest of the world pulses to a confident beat Fil has never walked in tune with. She’s reacted by finding a culture she both understands and is comfortable with—and in writing comic books for said culture, she’s even in charge of it. Fil FTW.

    Plus, she’s English. We don’t do shrinks.

  27. 27
    JamiSings says:

    @Cat – For those of us who haven’t read the book – yet – reading the review made me think of someone who was abused or bullied a lot as a child. Others thought of Aspergers – we haven’t read the book so we don’t know.

  28. 28
    Ann Bruce says:

    @JamiSings – My iPod Shuffle and iPod Touch (i.e. my 300+ e-books and audio books) go with me everywhere.  I have them handy around the office but have learned to not take them into meetings.  People don’t believe me when I tell them multitasking is my super power.

    Also, like yours, my mom and my sisters are social butterflies.  No one’s quite sure what happened with me.  Whereas I can spend days, even weeks, alone, they get antsy after a few hours on their own.

    As for the lack of filter between brain and mouth… After a certain age, you no longer have to take the precaution of mapping out the quickest escape route everywhere you go.  You just find your career limited…or yourself working for Microsoft.

  29. 29
    lizw65 says:

    I too read the heroine’s age rather than the comic character’s as 50+, and my first thought was not of Aspergers, but of “aging hippie who desperately needs to get a life”.  Actually, the book’s title made me think of the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus series, so my initial impression without reading the review was of a woman who skews conventionally male in her reactions.
    That said, this sounds like one of the more unusual and interesting romances out there, and I will definitely place it on my reading list.

  30. 30
    JamiSings says:

    @Ann – That’s just another reason I need to break into the music business. Famous people can say anything they want and get away with it. Even when it’s idiotic. LOL

    I wonder if I started a petition asking people to help me beat my Farmville addiction by getting me on tv to sing – either on a reality show or a talk show – if it would be successful. *chuckles*

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