Debbie Harry Sings in French, published by Henry Holt and Company in 2008, is Meagan Brothers’s debut novel and an “ode” to 1980s music.
The story is set in Tampa, Florida, in the 1990s, and the main character, Johnny, has just celebrated his thirteenth birthday. Tragically, Johnny’s father dies in a car accident and in the aftermath, Johnny’s mother withdraws. Suddenly, many of the household responsibilities fall to Johnny as he also struggles to continue with school. Johnny perseveres by maintaining his grades, paying the bills, and shopping for groceries. This unwieldy pressure is overwhelming for Johnny and he begins drinking heavily. He also becomes attracted to a goth lifestyle.
After three years, his substance abuse has increased significantly, but he discovers something that changes his life forever. When Johnny is sixteen, he goes to a rehabilitation facility following an accidental overdose. During rehab, Johnny discovers Debbie Harry, the iconic lead singer for the 1970s and 1980s punk band Blondie. Johnny becomes obsessed with Harry, and he begins to wear makeup, paint his nails, and do whatever he can to be like her. She embodies every quality he would like to assume himself: she is cool, she is tough, and she is very beautiful.
After rehabilitation, Johnny goes to South Carolina to live with his uncle, the brother of Johnny’s father. The students at his new school, Langley Prep, tease and bully Johnny about his appearance and assume he is gay. Fortunately, he meets Maria, who is also a goth and shares the same taste in music as Johnny. Maria encourages Johnny to enter a drag contest as Debbie Harry, and his suicidal thoughts and depression begin to wane. His connection to Debbie Harry’s lyrics is a part of his healing. Living with his uncle, Johnny also has the opportunity to learn more about his father and to appreciate him more than ever before.
As a debut novel, Debbie Harry Sings in French balances the tender and the light-hearted with the tragic. Brothers uses song titles for chapter names, which is an appealing characteristic for readers who have an intimate knowledge of pop music history. In general, critics have pointed out Brothers’s talent and her courage to address the difficult subjects of teen depression, sexuality, cross-dressing, and addiction. Despite its grave subject matter, the novel manages to be humorous, uplifting, and inspiring.