In her stark 2003 graphic novel Persepolis, Iranian native Marjane Satrapi described her coming of age in a war-torn country ultimately ruled by religious extremists. As the book ended, she traveled to Europe for schooling, in what she regarded as an escape. The story continues in Persepolis 2: The Story Of A Return, a similarly styled comic-strip autobiography that shows how Satrapi's escape became a trap.
Her troubles begin as soon as she arrives in Vienna. Zozo, the family friend tasked with taking her in, instead unloads her at a Catholic boarding school, where language barriers isolate her. A spat with a nun gets her expelled, so she finds refuge with a friend and begins assimilating herself, finding a personal identity and coming to terms with the decadent West. The process is rocky, full of culture clashes, self-image problems, hurtful love affairs, loneliness, depression, and homelessness. Finally, Satrapi voluntarily returns to Iran, where her interlude of European freedom makes her society's oppression and sexism even harder to take than before.
As dramatic and traumatic as Satrapi finds her experiences, much of Persepolis 2 feels both self-serving and alienating. Satrapi seems narrow-minded and judgmental: Within one page of her arrival in Vienna, she's mentally decrying Zozo's daughter as "a traitor" for her friendly offers to share earmuffs and lipstick "while people were dying in our country." While superficially eager to get along, Satrapi inwardly seethes and insults the people around her; she pointedly earns her expulsion from school, wallows in despair while blaming others for her situation, and often takes up the vices she condemns in others, while never addressing either the irony or the transformation.
Her anomie and dislocation are understandable, and even her seeming narcissism makes sense for a teenager discovering herself, but looking back on the story with adult eyes, she not only makes no apologies, but also frequently offers no explanations, no matter how astonishing her behavior becomes. In her worst moment, she falsely accuses a random bystander of indecency and gets him arrested in order to distract Iranian soldiers from her illegal lipstick, then later laughs over having sent an innocent man to the fate she'd personally feared. Anecdotes like that make it hard to sympathize with or even understand Satrapi, who seems to hold everyone to standards she herself ignores.
At its best, Persepolis 2 follows its predecessor in providing a fascinating citizen's-eye view of Iran, through events ranging in scale from Iraq's invasion of Kuwait to the series of moral-code-flouting parties at which Satrapi risks her freedom in order to explore her independence. Ultimately, Persepolis 2 provides another valuable window into an alien (yet all too human) way of life, but it's a far more difficult book than Persepolis. A child who lets her harsh environment interfere with her empathy for others is understandable and tragic, but an adult with the same problem borders on distressing solipsism.