By Erin Kavanagh-Hall
She has a colourful love life, a string of culinary disasters behind her, a questionable knack for poetry, a few DIY tips up her sleeve…and a particular fondness for rhubarb crumble and mushrooms (not together, obviously).
Meet Rachel. Modern woman, newspaper icon, and, more recently, the leading lady in her own coffee table book.
The Rachel character, recognisable for her glasses, mop of curls, and wry witticisms, is the creation of Mt Holdsworth-based cartoonist Di Batchelor, and star of the “Rachel Cartoon” – which has appeared on page 2 of the Wairarapa Midweek since 2012. Now Rachel and her guest stars – various pets, favourite fungi, girl friends, and romantic conquests – have graduated from newspaper clippings to book pages: with Batchelor publishing Rachel Cartoonz: Book One, a collection of newspaper cartoons from the past five years.
Batchelor’s 2-dimensional heroine is a pleasantly-plump, technology unsavvy, and oft-single 40-something, whose appearance is modelled on her close friend, also named Rachel. As the real Rachel was able to “sit still the longest” while Batchelor, who had previously only had cartoon cats and mice in her repertoire, was practising drawing people. I met the real Rachel at the Rachel Cartoonz book launch, and the resemblance is pretty spot-on.
Each week in the paper, Rachel shares her (mis)adventures in daily life: farm maintenance, housework, navigating exercise equipment, and taking multi-vitamins. With mixed results. Usually ending with a treat (before having accomplished anything on her To Do list), a moan to a friend, and some burnt toast.
I, as a former reporter with and editor of Midweek, am a Rachel convert. So, I was thrilled to hear Batchelor had taken the next step and published a “Rachel” book. What makes Rachel so appealing, as Batchelor herself put it, is that she “says what we’re all afraid to say out loud”. But not in the obnoxious “un-PC”, Stuff.co.nz-comments-section sense. In the sense that we’re all really quite dissatisfied with adulthood, and we haven’t yet figured out how to be a functional human being. And hoping no-one finds out how regularly we humiliate ourselves while trying.
In “Rachel Cartoonz: Book one”, there are plenty of hilarious Rachel escapades for fans to savour. True to form, Rachel takes a lot of naps – pledging to “live every second day as if it were her last.” She struggles through a pilates class, and barely manages to stay on an exercycle. She struggles to keep up with the housework – and her Handyman Tips including “stop[ping] for a cup of tea” if your task involves a sledge hammer. She gets her olive oil and dishwash muddled up (one of my biggest fears, that one!). She scours the dating sites, gets disheartened, and tucks into the rhubarb crumble. And when she does manage to find a man, they argue about politics in bed.
Sound familiar to anyone? Yeah, me, too. Especially when Rachel decides, when overwhelmed, that “the foetal position [is] the best course of action”.
Obviously, Rachel is relatable – but she has plenty of her own uniquely comical moments, thanks to Batchelor’s endearing sense of humour. Such as the time she went to a poetry reading, but brought her shopping list by accident. And when she decided not to join Twitter – but write postcards instead. And discussed stomach bacteria with her girlfriends over dinner. One of my personal favourites is the cartoon where Rachel wishes she were a cicada nymph. Check that one out for yourselves.
In fact, animals make several appearances in Rachel Cartoonz. Bess the sheepdog (based on Batchelor’s own dog) is particularly lovely, helping herself to the roast chicken, and often curled up on Rachel’s bed – even during, uh, inappropriate moments! There’s also a couple of talkative flies, some poorly-behaved lambs, a meditating ant (because, why not?!), and a philosophical Mana Island weta. Simple, yet enchanting.
In contrast with the cuteness, there are a few adult moments. One thing I personally love is Rachel’s frankness about sex. She has no qualms about being the aggressor in romantic relationships, which I find refreshing in a female character. She has sexual hankering which she is perfectly comfortable with – summed up beautifully in the cartoon with the orca dream. Again, see for yourselves.
There’s a bit of gallows humour in there as well, with some gags about euthanasia – always a touchy subject. However, it didn’t distract from the overall jovial tone of the book, nor did it seem in bad taste.
The sympathetic “everywoman” character Batchelor has created in Rachel isn’t an original one, as far as cartoons and newspaper appearances go. Celia Allison’s Cecily character, for example, experiences similar highs and lows of middle age in the modern era. And, of course, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, the quintessential curvaceous singleton, started life in a column in The Independent.
But still, one can’t help but fall in love with the Rachel cartoon. Batchelor’s simple, almost childlike drawings add an unselfconscious charm to Rachel’s story. Plus, there’s something uplifting about Rachel. She’s aware she’s got flaws, and has moments of wobbly self-esteem, but she’s still determined to get the most out of life. And in a world so obsessed with womanly perfection, that feels welcome. As Gerald Ford, former Midweek editor, noted in the book’s footnote: “She is capable of finding amusement and enlightenment in the strangest and most ordinary of places. She embodies a kind of fatalistic optimism. What will be will be, and it will probably be okay.”
If I had to be critical, I would say some of the cartoons in the book are a bit repetitive thematically. There are a lot of the subject of Rachel heading back to bed, or napping on the couch, for example, and quite a few on food. But, they’re still hilarious and on-point – so it almost doesn’t matter.
Rachel’s honesty, bawdiness (too bawdy for my bosses’ taste, at times!), and appetite, for dessert and other things, brightened up many a stressful week at the news desk for me, and has doubtlessly got readers from all corners of the valley chuckling along. Well done to Di Batchelor on a great first “Rachel” collection – have some crumble to celebrate!
Rachel Cartoonz: Book One is available at Hedley’s Books in Masterton and Almo Books in Carterton.