A few days ago, I was talking with a friend, and I told her that teenage girls must have superpowers that temporarily bestow them with emotional endurance beyond what anyone else in any other demographic could hope for or imagine, and it’s amazing that anyone survives girlhood without needing tons of therapy afterwards. Her response was, unsurprisingly, that they don’t. This was a conversation I had shortly after reading Justine, an illustrated novel by Forsyth Harmon, that had stirred bittersweet high school memories, along with a slight bewilderment that I had managed to survive high school at all. It wasn’t that my experience had been particularly harrowing, even if I had been so sure it was at the time. My experience had been quite typical, yet my feelings about those times, and the awe I feel now of my teenage self, are still very real—they were then, and they are now. But somehow this feels hard to admit, and I’ve found that I’m not alone in this. That’s why reading Justine hit close to home in a way that was almost painful, but also incredibly validating.
Justine is Harmon’s first solo novel, having previously collaborated with Catherine Lacey (author of The Answers and Nobody Is Ever Missing) on an illustrated book about the entanglements between various artistic and literary luminaries. This stunning debut features beautiful and meticulously crafted text interwoven with Harmon’s distinctive spare illustrations, and it showcases her skills as both a writer and an artist.
The book takes place during the summer of 1999. Ali, the protagonist, is a teenager living in suburbia with her soap-opera-obsessed Swedish grandmother and her beloved cat, Marlena. Ali runs into Justine on page one, at the local Stop & Shop where Justine works, and is immediately captivated by her presence. Justine’s haunting and slightly unnerving beauty entrances Ali, and she describes Justine with the type of reverence that makes her language verge on poetry:
She was so tall and thin she looked almost two-dimensional, her long fingers fluttering over the cash register keys… Her face was long too, and her skin was so pale it was bluish like skim milk, and transparent in places…She pulled at the ends of [her hair] with those long white fingers, shoving the hair into her mouth, wide and protruding as though closed around the rind of an orange slice.
Ali also notes that Justine is from the more affluent side of town, although it’s never explained why someone whose parents are wealthy enough to own their own pool would work at a grocery store. Following this brief encounter, Ali fills out an application and lands herself a job at the Stop & Shop working next to the ever-alluring and slightly dangerous Justine.
As soon as Ali makes this new acquaintance, she is eager to shed whatever tentative identity and life she had already constructed for herself. She starts by breaking up with her boyfriend the night after she loses her virginity to him. When she begins working at the Stop & Shop, Justine gives her a name tag that says Alison (despite Ali being her given name), and she quickly agrees to the change. She is accepted into Justine’s social circles and begins a flirtation with a friend of Justine’s boyfriend, a drug dealer and bonafide hip hop connoisseur. They hit all of the right notes when it comes to high school moments: going to parties and testing the limits of their alcohol intake, breaking into an abandoned building, and singing off-key renditions of the Smith’s greatest hits as they drive through the summer night.
Ali also increasingly mirrors Justine. Like Justine, she plasters her wall with torn-out pages from magazines featuring the waifish figures of celebrities and models. She takes up Justine’s food insecurities, encouraged by Justine herself—one day, after indulging in too much vodka and raspberry sorbet, Justine clips Ali’s fingernails and teaches her how to throw up. Eventually, she’s not just in Justine’s shadow—she is Justine’s shadow, down to the same eyeliner technique and the same brand of low-fat yogurt. This is clearly not just a relationship of close friendship and admiration, as it’s one thing to adopt mutual friends and similar tastes in music, but quite another to mimic someone’s eating disorder and pick up their proclivity for minor theft.
Yet even as we go through this journey with Ali, we don’t learn much about her. This lends her easily to projection, but it also feels like an accurate depiction of the experience of being a teenager. If being an adult is about cultivating an identity and a chosen path, then being a teenager is about discovering what that will even be. This era of self-discovery—marked by awkward sex, friends who are a Bad Influence, and listening to the same music as your crush—isn’t uncommon, and it all appears in its most painfully relatable form in Justine. Every slightly familiar scene is brought back to life with unabashed rawness and clarity, and Harmon knows how to poke at those wounds in a way that both entices and repels. She doesn’t put a clever spin on it or resort to irony—her take is that there is no take: these experiences are significant in themselves. They are happening to a person with feelings for the first time. How could that not be meaningful?
Another quietly revolutionary aspect of Justine is the way it describes the destructive relationship with food that young women can develop. Disordered eating is rampant, and for those with eating disorders it becomes part of their routine, yet there are few books about characters with eating disorders that are not just about that characters’ journey back to health. This book reveals how body and food insecurities can escalate, deteriorating both mental and physical well-being, yet are often delegated into the periphery, a grim habit that is often implicitly condoned by the media, society, and even well-meaning friends. Harmon doesn’t spare you the details, but she doesn’t ring any alarms either. Just as in life, their eating disorders live on the edge between utterly devastating and completely normalized.
Sex is also approached in a way that feels far more true to life, with all of its weirdness and complications unobscured by romantic or emotional entanglements. Ali’s sexual encounters tend to be less about building a relationship with her partner, and more about building a relationship with sex itself. In one instance, she compares her sexual experiences with two different partners:
With Matt, sex was less like doing and more like watching, like I was observing other people having sex…When Ryan touched me, it was like he just touched me. I felt his actual hands on my actual body. We were real human beings have sex for three minutes. Of course, I’d never tell anyone. Ryan was a dirty, drug-dealing cutter. But I loved every second of it. It might’ve even been the best thing I’d ever done in my entire life.
A lot of books and movies about teenagers will have some sort of plotline surrounding a character losing their virginity, and if someone were to glean their understanding of sex solely from what they read or watched they might assume that falling in love was a natural—perhaps mandatory—precursor. But it is far more likely that people are not in love the first time they have sex. Removing the romance of sex has allowed Harmon to explore what makes early forays into sexuality meaningful outside of its implications for a relationship.
And in fact, nothing is as sexual (or romantic) as the sex Ali doesn’t have with Justine. One of the most beautiful lines in the book is “Justine’s body was as smooth and white as a shell’s inside, like I could put my ear to her stomach and hear the Atlantic.” This brings up the question: Is this an LGBTQ+ novel? Is this obsession just the product of Justine having a covetable figure and persona that Ali is desperate to have as her own? Or is this about someone falling in love for the first time? Does it even matter? And the truth is: I don’t know. I think it might depend on who you ask and how they project themselves onto Ali, but even then a simple “yes” or “no” from anyone would feel too easy, not quite doing the relationship justice.
What vastly substantiates the whole novel are Harmon’s exquisitely drawn illustrations, which offer a window into the small things that make up Ali’s world. You see the ephemera of a typical 90s teen, including unspooling cassette tapes, a pair of Converse All-Stars, Tamagotchis, and a crumpled bag of chips. In many ways, her illustrations also bear a striking resemblance to her prose. Objects rarely come with backgrounds, so each one stands out, making them look lonely and poignant, even a little sad (for the sake of comparison, one line in the novel reads “The metal number 7 on the front door was missing a nail and hung askew in a way that made me sad”). There’s also a vulnerability and transient nature to them: the candy wrappers will get thrown out, as will the disposable camera. There is also a devastating illustration of Ali’s weight chart, a graph showing a descending line—a stark image of her desire to literally vanish, perhaps into Justine or perhaps into nothing at all.
It takes immense vulnerability and resilience to get through girlhood, yet why is that so hard to admit, especially when that experience—my own included—can only be described as ordinary? By leaning into teenage experiences that feel unspoken yet universal, Justine illuminates the nuances and significance of them. They may be typical, but it’s okay to feel them deeply.
Justine is published by Tin House and will be available March 2, 2021.
AYA KUSCH is an editor, artist, and freelancer based in San Francisco. She grew up playing with mud, which eventually led to a love of clay and a subsequent BFA in sculpture. She is fourth-generation Japanese and a third-generation potter, a Bay Area native, and a former bookseller who still obsesses over the best way to organize a bookshelf. She loves good design, contemporary art that will worry your mom and confuse your dad, and sculptures that make you look up. She is currently working on a book about art from Edo, Japan.