Sunday, February 13, 2011

Debbie Harry Sings in French, by Meagan Brothers

I looked back at her. She was just sitting on the bed, reading the back of the album cover. I wanted to believe she was honest, that she wasn't making fun of me. That she was on my side. But she was real. And that's the problem with real people. They can form opinions about you, just like you form opinions about them. Unlike posters, or album covers, or voices on records that always say the same thing whenever you put them on. Real people can feel free to voice their contrary opinions any damn time they please.
I bought this book on a whim because I thought the title was really kickass. In addition, when I read this on the jacket flap: "This witty and tender novel introduces shades of gray into the black-and-white ideas of sexuality and gender," I thought, double score! Pleasantly, it did not disappoint, at all.

The book revolves around Johnny, a teenager living in Florida dealing with some serious family trauma and some pretty crappy friends. Accordingly, he drinks too much and ends up almost dying from an overdose, after which his mom ships him off to South Carolina to live with his uncle. Herein two beautiful things happen: he discovers Blondie, and he meets Maria. Maria, who is the coolest of the cool, who has her own vicious demons to contend with. What I like about both Johnny and Maria is that they are both supremely likable; while they both have serious issues going on they are also really smart and witty and funny, which offsets the Drowning in Angst Young Adult Character typecast which can get to be just a little too much sometimes in these books. I love all of their dialogue, and I was really rooting for them, and their relationship, throughout.

In addition to the characters, another thing I feel like Meagan Brothers writes really well about is music. I love the paragraph above, and she just explains what a vital force it is in both Johnny and Maria's lives without being over the top about it. Anytime I find a book/author who really gets the music thing right, I want to jump and cheer. Then, there is the gender stuff.

Essentially, Johnny doesn't just love Blondie's music, he loves Debbie Harry: he wants her style, her fierceness, her female toughness. It's Maria who first encourages him to wear a dress, to put on heels, because she can sense that he wants to, and she's the force he needs to actually submit to these feelings. This is why Maria is the best girlfriend ever: she encourages her boyfriend to wear a dress. I love this storyline, and I love that while he's exploring this cross-dressing side of him, he never loses any of his certainty of his love for Maria. In other words: you can be fluid in your gender without being gay, which is an issue I feel is hard for many to understand, or even really know about. He is not anti-gay in the least, and gay-bashing from others who perceive him as gay/too effeminate is another intense storyline of the book; he's just not gay, himself. What I really like about this book is that, while the jacket flap does kind of insinuate this, it's not really just a book about a guy who wants to wear a dress. This is a dominant theme, yes, but it's done subtly, and smartly, which achieves the right affect: it's not a book about an "issue," it's a book about people.
"John, do you wish you were a girl?"
I had to think for a minute. Did I really want to be Debbie, or any woman? Did I want to be myself but with a different set of equipment? Was that the key? It seemed like a whole new set of problems.
"I like--I love women. They're beautiful and--they're just different. Sometimes I wish I could be gentle and beautiful and not be called a queer. But I don't hate myself or anything. I'm doing better, right? My grades are okay. I'm not getting into trouble. So what's wrong with putting on a dress every once in a while?"
"Nothing, John," Briggs said after a while. He put down his pen. "I'll see you next week."

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