Forsyth Harmon’s debut novel, Justine, explores the idea behind the questions many of us often ask ourselves. Do we become the person we are through the people we seek, or do the people around us shape who we become? That question, often answered in nicely tied neat bows in coming-of-age stories, is anything but neat in Harmon’s novel. That is what makes the book so successful. The refusal to answer that question neatly is what makes Harmon’s novel so powerful.
Set in the early 1990’s on Long Island, NY, Harmon’s choice of setting and time illustrate how the coming-of-age novel isn’t universal due to the rapidly changing times the American reader lives in. In an era of Tamagotchi’s and Tony Hawk, Harmon’s protagonist Ali, has her world flipped upside down during a chance encounter at a Stop & Shop where she is buying Diet Coke and sugar free Trident. The cashier, Justine, is so captivating to Ali that she immediately applies for a job there and befriends her.
Ali lives with her Swedish, immigrant grandmother, who spends her days watching Fox News and Days of our Lives, and is Ali’s sole caretaker. Her mother has passed away and her father is all but absent in the novel sans for one scene. Perhaps that situation is what makes Ali so susceptible to Justine and her friends, but while Harmon explores that idea, she wisely does not answer it, leaving it to the reader.
Justine introduces Ali to boys who skateboard, deal weed and mixed tapes, and break into abandoned psychiatric hospitals. She also introduces her to shoplifting and bulimia. Ali, an eager follower, takes Justine’s lead up to the end.
Justine is a fully realized character, as she should be since she carries the weight of the title of the novel, but it is Ali that readers follow, much in the manner that Ali follows Justine. Ali is keenly observant to the world of Long Island, and to her home situation, never romanticizing nor chastising it. As a character, Ali doesn’t appeal to those readers who crave stories about people getting out of their towns, or people who love their hometown. Instead, Harmon simply portrays things as they are through an insightful protagonist. And that is a writerly move on Harmon’s part since most people don’t live on the poles of hating or loving their hometown. Instead, most people live in the nuanced middle between longing to get out of their hometown and romanticizing it.
The time period of the early 1990s is an intuitive one on Harmon’s part, particularly as we see the current exploration of the mistreatment of teenage popstars from that time. Ali is fascinated with fashion models, and the 1990s was a time of the waif, the heroin-chic cover girl. When body consciousness was rampant, and unattainable weight was the unreachable goal. Ali daily records her weight and measurements and cuts out images of women from fashion magazines. This is a two-fold success on Harmon’s part, as it is both a study in media manipulation, but also sexual exploration.
Even in the smaller nuances of the novel, Harmon’s themes dig deep. When Ali and her friends are leaving the abandoned psychiatric hospital, they see a cop car. Instead of a flight or fight response, the boys simply stroll up to the cops, knowing through family connections, they will face no consequences. It is a small, but powerful moment of privilege and arrogance. All through the eyes of a teenage girl.
Perhaps the most telling of all scenes occurs early in the book when Ali gets her nametag on her first day of work. Named Ali at birth, the nametag reads Alison. When she tries to explain to the manager that Ali is her proper name, the manager refuses, telling her Alison is better. It is in this moment that readers know they are on a path to the discovery, and hiding of, identity.
Many have hailed this novel as a LGBTQ coming of age story. And it is. But it’s one of a time when one could explore their LGBTQ sexuality, but not openly, or proudly. That is what makes the novel’s setting so powerful. It is about as close to a time today that one could have that paradox of exploration and shame. While Harmon successfully sets the time period with cassette tapes, Tamagotchi’s, and waifs, the writer does not hit us over the head with these clues to the time.
Justine’s ending comes jarringly swift, as it should, but perhaps the ending of Ali’s story happens a bit earlier when she makes a pivotal decision regarding her friendship with Justine. This decision makes the ending of the novel more jarring for both Ali and readers.
Forsyth Harmon has crafted a sensitive and observant debut novel filled with her wonderful illustrations that look like the teenage character created them herself. It is filled with universal themes that readers of multiple ages and generations will find kinship with and hopefully see themselves, or someone they know, in. And while so much of LGTBQ YA is set in our current times, Justine is an important one as it helps fill in a history that is little recorded, and gravely needed, for the LGBTQ community to understand our roots.
Edward Jackson attended Western Michigan University (BA), Aquinas College (M.Ed.), University of Georgia (Ed.S.), and Emory University (Post Grad Certificate). He was a teacher and librarian for twenty years. Currently he is enrolled in the MFA program at Youngstown State University. He lives in Greenville, PA with his husband, his cat Glen and dog Roger. They share the space with a family of squatter bats (summer) and squirrels (winter) who won’t leave the walls of his attic office and mock him endlessly.