Saturday, June 21, 2008

review: Debbie Harry Sings in French

Debbie Harry Sings in French by Meagan Brothers. Henry Holt, 2008
(978-0-8050-8080-3) $16.95

Sixteen-year-old Johnny is in rehab when he first hears Debbie Harry sing and feels an instant affinity. Listening to Blondie becomes a way to soothe himself without booze--an outlet he especially needs when his mother decides rehab wasn't enough, and send him to live with his uncle in South Carolina. In his new school, kids are divided into two types: "the classic prep-school kids from old-money Southern families" and "the fuck-ups, kids like me... taken in by Langley Prep and subsequently whipped into shape. It didn't take a week to tell that the latter half were total shit in the eyes of the former."

Then he meets and falls for Maria, a very attractive member of the fuck-ups. Maria laughs at Blondie at first--"Disco Cheesecake!"--but quickly becomes sympathetic to Johnny's passion for Harry's combination of toughness and beauty. As they grow closer, in a plot twist straight out of fetish fantasy, Maria not only buys a Debbie Harry-style dress for Johnny, but encourages him to enter a drag contest. He does, and discovers it feels wonderful, "to get up there and be fabulous for a few minutes."

Probably the biggest plus of this story is its accessibility. It's fast-paced and easy to read, and Johnny starts out with so many familiar young adult problems that almost any teen could find something in him to relate to. That may help the book find more readers than just those attracted by a gender-bending theme. But that strength could also be considered a weakness. Too much of the story felt rushed and obvious, a bit afterschool-specialish, especially at in the beginning chapters when so many "issues" develop in a very short space of narrative time. My interest picked up considerably when Johnny moved and met Maria: their relationship, including a short, non-explicit sex scene, is drawn with tenderness and respect. Johnny's interactions with his uncle and cousin are also appealingly warm. Still, I kept hoping for more from this book: more insight, more evocative language, more gateways into understanding how Johnny really feels and why. A portrait of a heterosexual teen cross-dresser is rare in YA fiction; I really wanted a lot from this one.

In the end, I came away a little disappointed, but still appreciating the story's basic support of individual expression, and I expect many readers will feel the same. As Johnny's friend (once the only black guy in his school into punk rock) tells him, "the great thing is, once you get out in the real world, nobody cares anymore. As long as you pay the rent." (14 & up)

Other blog reviews:

Seven Impossible Things

The Story Siren

So Many Books...

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