The Professor’s Daughter
Written by Joann Sfar; Illustrated by Emmanuel Guibert
Knowing that it’s about the romance between a mummy and the daughter of the man who discovered him, I expected The Professor’s Daughter to be whimsical. And it is.
What I wasn’t prepared for was for it to go beyond whimsy and into ridiculousness. That’s not a bad thing, but it caught me off guard when I thought I was reading one kind of book and it turned out I was reading another.
To be fair, there are plenty of clues that this is where Sfar and Guibert are headed. The story begins as Lillian, daughter of the renowned Professor Bowell, takes her father’s prized mummy Imhotep out as her escort for the afternoon. We get the feeling that they’ve already developed a fondness for each other, but it’s on this day that they realize they share some resentment at how the Professor treats them.
I won’t go into detail about how the date progresses because it’s too fun to witness for yourself, but let’s just say that Lillian isn’t careful enough about having Imhotep out and the afternoon ends with demands for satisfaction and the police at Lillian’s door. And then things start to really go downhill.
What we end up with is murder, more mummies (not all as nice as Imhotep), courtroom drama, voyages at sea, an assault on Buckingham Palace, jailbreaks, and Queen Victoria in the Thames. It’s all very exciting. Much more so than the quirky, little romance I was expecting.
The characters are better rounded than I imagined too. From his top hat and tails, I figured that Imhotep would be a humorously proper gentleman and that most of the jokes would be the fish-out-of-water sort. He is a fish-out-of-water, but it’s not so much played for laughs. Instead, Imhotep is justifiably resentful that he – a king in his time – is now treated like less than a slave and more like an expensive end table. There’s real pathos going on with him and we end up connecting with and rooting for him in a much deeper way than I expected.
Lillian, looking adoringly at Imhotep on the cover, isn’t as reserved or discreet as she first appears either. She’s actually got a bit of a mean streak. She’s self-absorbed and is perfectly willing to blame some of her heftier mistakes on innocent people. But she’s also the only person in Imhotep’s life who sees him as he sees himself, and vice versa. We get their attraction to each other. They’re a flawed couple, but they’re so persecuted and truly star-crossed that we cheer for them anyway.
It’s really a sweet little book, and much deeper than it first appears. Guibert’s painted illustrations reflect that sweetness too and give The Professor’s Daughter a marvelous, storybook quality that raises it above being simply a complex, adventurous romance and gives it warmth and magic as well.