Ali is bored, lonely, and smitten. Justine is bold, aloof, and irresistible. The girls meet in a Long Island Stop & Shop in the summer of 1999. I’ve been quoting from this song a lot lately, but as John Darnielle said so perfectly in “Old College Try”:
Things will shortly get completely out of hand
There is something visceral about peeking back into the mind of a suburban tri-state-area teen. This book stuck with me like the frequently mentioned feeling of bare thighs sticking to vinyl car seats. I was immediately transported back to my own shoreline summers of loitering in parking lots and sneaking about in the modern ruins of empty hospitals and abandoned summer camps. I was pummeled by recognition while Ali assessed the boys who were assessing her.
Ryan lifted his chin a little, judging me. His freckles shifted with his expression, and I could tell he disapproved. Yes, hated me, and I hated myself, which created an unexpected point of agreement between us.
Ali, like so many teenagers before her and so many others to come, is fascinated. The fascination will grow to obsession. The obsession will flower into compulsion. Be warned: Ali and Justine are spiraling down through patterns of disordered eating, substance abuse, and risky sex. If you find these situations painful, then this is may not the book (or the review) for you. Harmon treats these situations with care. She is sensitive to the perils and pressures of being a teenage girl, and while her details – especially around disordered eating- are precise and unflinching, she gives the characters and the situations an air of respect that keeps Justine from being either a lurid train-wreck or a heavy-handed afterschool special. Ali and Justine are both acolytes at the altar of fashion magazines. They know all of the models. They know exactly what they weigh. They tape their photos to every available surface. Justine is more serious in her worship. Ali can’t stop herself from seeing Justine as a model as well.
I didn’t want look too long. I felt a little sick. I sat down on the bed and the sickness mutated into a kind of nervous arousal.
Harmon has crafted a crushing little slice of life in Justine. Her words are few and meticulously chosen. She is the tour guide cursed with visions of the future, carefully spilling out facts while Ali careens into driveways in various states of intoxication. Her prose is accented throughout by her illustrations; Harmon scatters careful drawings throughout the pages, making the novel feel even more like a diary. Hands, cassette tapes, handfuls of potato chips, and crumpled roaches adorn the pages in the same way that the girls decorate themselves with black eyeliner, dark nail polish, and overplucked pencil-thin eyebrows.
It would be impossible to leave this book feeling good; but you will feel something. It may or may not be familiar, but it will be immediate and deep.
I received this ARC from the Tin House in exchange for a fair and honest review