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Drawn To Olivia
The wit and wonder of Olivia de Recat
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Here are three unsolicited opinions that I share with anyone within earshot:
1) Prioritizing sleep is the number one thing you can do for your health.
2) Introspection is the main skill we need to learn as adults.
3) Olivia de Recat (
I dispense these opinions liberally: At the line for coffee, the neighboring bathroom stall, and to my dentist as I gargle syllables because he really needs to know these things.
So who is this Olivia person and why does my dentist know about her?
Olivia de Recat is a cartoonist and writer. I’m sure she has another talent that makes her a triple threat, but perhaps she hides her slick dance moves from the masses. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker since 2017, along with a host of other publications. She released her first book, Drawn Together in 2022, and you can see her writing here on Substack and her delightful cartoons on Instagram.
Olivia’s cartoons and writing have inspired my own artistic journey. Her work is witty, honest, and deep. She doesn’t pander or patronize. She reads like a friend who knows how to hold space for you while also telling you where you fucked up (and will let you know about the time they fucked up in a similar manner).
My first attempt to add a little Olivia touch to my writing was when I wrote an essay on metaphors (spoiler: Metaphors are everywhere!), and tried to use a cartoon version of Camilo in the piece. The keyword here is try. I’ll let you be the judge of my endeavors.
Once, I realized that maybe I should stick to writing, I was inspired by one of her most famous illustrations, “Closeness Lines.” I loved how simply she illustrated such a complex idea. It became the inspiration for one of my favorite essays I’ve written, “Friendship Lines.”
What I find the most inspiring from her body of work is her book Drawn Together. The book is half-memoir, half exploration of love through the stories of the charming couples featured. It is a handcrafted jewel, and I mean the handcrafted literally–this woman hand wrote the entire freaking book, like a maniac who wanted to overachieve for her Senior class project. But between the hand writing, the brilliant illustrations, and the moving stories of true love, I’m left in awe of how someone could write something so beautiful, original, and thoughtful.
Olivia shares a few key traits with other writers I admire:
1) They are masters at creating metaphors and simplifying complex ideas.
2) They make the mundane interesting and deliver novel insights through humor and/or memorable prose.
3) Their prose has a clear fingerprint; like a good Bordeaux.1
This is a non-exhaustive list, of course. But these are the elements in Olivia’s writing and illustrations that shine in her book.
Olivia’s prose is musical. The melody and harmony are brought on by her humor and vulnerability; they set the tone of the book and are felt in nearly every page.
The rhythm is a combination of distinctive elements: Antithesis, triads, and varying sentence length. She often writes in parallels, offering contrasting ideas. Many of her sentences include three elements. This gives her writing a subtle rhythm–like the clave in salsa music–which helps with readability and recall, while also using triads to play with humor or emotional depth.
All of this is capped off by her illustrations. Think of her illustrations like Prince’s guitar solos, or Elton John’s energetic piano performances. Iconic and charming.2
To show you what I mean, let’s take a look at few examples from her book:
Are you a rock or a sponge?
At the beginning of her book, Olivia gives us a window into her dating patterns. At times too closed off, other times boundaryless and all-too-conforming. All in all part of a cycle that has become a rite of passage in modern dating.
This is a sticky metaphor that prompts reflection. Inevitably, I cycled through all my relationships and almost relationships, seeing where I’ve been a rock or a sponge. My people pleasing tendencies tend to turn me into SpongeBob SquarePants, though I’ve also tried (too hard) to play it cool and hide my wounds pretending I’ve been petrified by Medusa herself.
Perhaps the middle point is to be a plant–you grow as you absorb what you are given, but too much of it, and you will die.
Olivia talks about the Divest/Manifest models for meeting romantic partners. The Divest model is to be intentionally aloof and distant: Don’t force it, love will come looking for you–so the wisdom goes.
Manifest is to imagine your ideal partner, letting them live in the penthouse of your mind, and through endless rumination attract them.
But the fallacies of each of these approaches are exposed by Olivia:3
I’ve fallen into this pattern. I’ve played it cool. I’ve had a checklist. I can report neither approach has been successful. That’s why I’m keen to follow her wisdom on a third way to approach meeting romantic partners:
The Chill Girl Facade
Olivia describes a point while writing this book where she is rear-ended by a truck of emotions. She experiences a rumination all-too-familiar to overthinkers.
She admits she’s been trying to maintain a “chill girl” facade, and realizes that her sexuality is the pink elephant4 in the room. She also shares her fears on writing the book well, and loving well. The parallels between love and the creative process are consistent throughout the book and as a writer, it gives her another dimension of insight.
Aunt Carol & Uncle Martin
One of the most moving chapters in the book is the love story of her great-aunt Carol and great-uncle Martin. Their love started in first grade, when Carol told Martin she wanted to marry him.
They loved each other most of their lives, right until Carol died.
Olivia captures the mundane details, the cologne Carol always bought Martin, the dominance of Italian dishes in their household, and all those little things that serve as proof that love is built, daily. It’s groundhog's day, and you fall in love with the sunrise and the sunset. Every day.
The chapter ends with Martin’s longing for Carol. It’s hard for me to read this passage without blinking as if my eyelids were windshield wipers.
It’s me, I’m the problem, it’s me
Near the end of the book, Olivia realizes that she has not been showing up authentically in her relationships, nor seeing the humanity in her partners. But she shares this revelation with humor, earnestness, and a tenderness that invites us to evaluate whether we are also
holding our farts in, not showing up fully in our relationships.
As I wrote this piece I realized three things:
The hardest part was selecting my favorite passages from her book. It’s like asking me to pick my favorite song from Maroon 5’s Songs About Jane album.5
Consciously or not, I’ve adopted many elements of Olivia’s writing into my own. For example, I love
threesomes triads. And people tell me I’m funny, so you get some of that flavor in my writing as well. I guess if you are going to imitate someone, it better be someone whose work you love to read.
Perhaps I decided to write about Olivia now because I needed to read Drawn Together again. I needed to remind myself that love is not a game of The Sims that can be perfectly simulated in my mind. It’s an experience that needs to be felt, even if what is felt can be a storm of dejection and heartbreak every now and then. It needs to be rooted in self-love, and an openness to see the best in people and accept the worst.
Perhaps I needed to read what a couple featured in the book (Wade & Eric) told Olivia in the midst of her love-angst:
“Everything is right on time…everything.”
Olivia wrote an amazing essay on her Substack about her Taylor Swift fandom and attending a Taylor Swift concert. It’s a must-read.
Thank you to, , , and for their feedback with this piece.
If you were drawn to my writing (see what I did there??). Then, I would love it if you subscribed.
I cannot tell a good Bordeaux from a bag of Franzia. I’m sorry. But I know fancy people with gustatory superpowers can do it, so the analogy stays.
I went through a delightful Elton John rabbit hole where I found this amazing performance of Bennie and the Jets from the 70s.
This is a Seattle reference.
Their finest work.