Book Review: Debbie Harry Sings in French
I’m always on the look out for a good read and I have to admit that I have a penchant for gay and lesbian literature in all forms. One of my co-workers knows that I really like reading GLBTQ YA literature to see how this genre has changed since I was younger and what they are doing content wise for young adults. She handed me Debbie Harry Sings in French with her seal of approval and told me that it was something that I needed to read. If you knew this person, you would trust her recommendation also.
I took the book home and set it aside for a few days. Then as my nightly ritual of reading in bed, I picked it up and settled in under the covers. The book captivated me so that I read it cover to cover not realizing that I had stayed up way past my bedtime. So, here is my review and I hope it sparks your interest enough to read it yourself.
You start out by meeting Johnny, his father dies, and his mother(as a result) descends into a depression. Fast forward a few years and Johnny has become a Goth guy that listens to the Cure and gets picked on at his high school in Florida for wearing eyeliner and being different. He really only has one friend, Terry. They drink and party, even getting into a bar underage. At the bar Johnny has a very near-death experience and the result is him being sent to rehab. One of my favorite parts is when he reflects on this experience “some of the other Goth kids I knew were always talking about death in a weird, detached kind of way. It was like they wanted a zombie-movie version of it, not the real, messy, emergency-room version. I thought like that, too, for a while. But something changed, and I couldn’t think that way anymore.”
While in rehab he hears Debbie Harry sing on the radio. He later describes it as “Listening to Debbie Harry sing the French part of ‘Sunday Girl’ was somehow more reassuring than anything the counselors had told me so far”. His mother makes the decision that he should live with his paternal uncle and his daughter ”Bug” in South Carolina. While he’s in school there he meets Maria and it’s love at first sight, except for the fact that Maria initially thinks Johnny is gay because of the way he dress (like Robert Smith). They begin to spend time together and starts a conflict with her ex-boyfriend and Johnny.
Johnny is going through a lot of changes and as a stipulation of his release from rehab he has to see his school counselor. There he opens up and describes that “It’s not like I just think of Debbie and, bang, I’m cured, It’s . . . I dunno, meditation or something. If I’m in a tough situation, I think about how cool and tough she is, and I try to be cool and tough, too.” Finding strength in that “tough, but…really beautiful” persona and how her music makes him feel, he eventually takes it a step further by dressing up as her and, ultimately, entering a drag show (in the little white dress she wears on the cover of Parallel Lines). This is done for more many reasons, one being his want to help Maria with issues of her own and two, exploring the empowerment he feels as Debbie.
In the end, the conflict with Maria’s ex-boyfriend comes to a head and results in him strengthening the strained bond with his mother and learning more about his father than he ever knew before.
Some of the things I really loved about this book are that it dealt with big issues but never felt heavy. Also, everything about the storyline sang Be Who You Are, but without ever feeling like Johnny’s story was a vehicle for a message. I hope this prompts you to read it, I bet you’ll enjoy it too.