Review: Justine by Forsyth Harmon
Forsyth Harmon’s authorial debut is not her first publication — and it shows; her storytelling prowess, honed in previous collaborations with well-known names like Leslie Jamison and Melissa Febos, is on full display in Justine.
Justine is young, edgy, and confident. She has a dazzling smile, effortless cool. She knows Vogue is better than Seventeen, knows how to pluck her eyebrows, knows how to vomit to counteract indulgences from the candy rack. She’s four inches taller than Alison, whose perspective the reader occupies, and weighs 12 pounds less. She’s thin and beautiful. When Alison first encounters Justine, in her red apron behind the counter at the local Stop & Shop, she is drawn to her so intensely that “need” is a more appropriate descriptor than “want.”
“I wanted to be inside her body.” Alison says. “I wanted to kiss her, but more, I wanted to be her.”
In this context, knee-deep in an ocean of reckless desire, Harmon maps a Long Island summer circa 1999. Through Alison’s teenage eyes, readers are given a clarifying reminder of what it’s like to be inexperienced and vulnerable. Justine is an elegy, not just of a decade, though it captures the ’90s beautifully, but also of a feeling — of the profound discontent of adolescence, of the way American girlhood is less about finding yourself than about finding a way to be someone else.
Justine made me incredibly uncomfortable. Alison’s infatuation with Justine and her desire to remake herself in Justine’s image made me feel sad and helpless. The effect of her obsession on her own self-worth made me squirm. Passages describing consumption of fat-free strawberry yogurt and daily interactions with the bathroom scale made me feel something like fear. In fact, every page made me feel, often relentlessly.
If writing is a performance, Justine is an exceptional routine — and to top it off, Harmon sticks the landing. The ending is flawless.
Rating: 4.5 stars
Sex with Ryan was different from sex with Matt. With Matt, sex was less like doing and more like watching, like I was observing other people having sex. The main thing was whether or not it would look good from the outside. Like was it good enough to be in a movie? … 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 having 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 been the best thing I’d ever done in my entire life.
Wynter K Miller is an editor and writer in California.