There are always those early friendships that shake you. My first ‘best friend,’ as with most first friendships, came to me out of a mixture of proximity and shared interests but also a need to engage with friendship and connection in a deep, all-consuming way. Sleepovers were a must. We had to be around each other at school and after, whenever possible.
But, typically, there’s always a moment that pulls you apart. I recall one day in elementary school when my best friend was nowhere to be found. Then a teacher brought me a blue handwritten note. It was from one of her parents, saying she wouldn’t be coming to school that day – and she’d be changing schools altogether. That night, I talked to my friend over the phone briefly, and when I hung up, my mother watched as I cried heavily into a pillow. I was so young, and the two of us would see each other years later and grow apart yet again. But to me, even then, it was earth shattering. Such is the power of female friendships.
This is exactly what Joni Murphy captures in her debut novel, Double Teenage (BookThug). The novel follows two young women, Celine and Julie, growing up in Las Cruces, New Mexico, as they try to make sense of themselves, their friends and neighbours, and their surroundings. It’s a stunning picture of friendship steeped in duality – both the photo you have framed, and the one you keep tucked behind it.
Murphy explores the fun, stay-up-all-night-watching-Twin Peaks vibe of growing up in the ’90s, and laces her prose with references to Nirvana and other staples of the time, like Selena and Leo in Romeo + Juliet. She’s skilled at painting a scene, through phrases like “melon-hued interior walls,” and, in describing a dish at a Mexican restaurant, “the symbolic vegetable gesture of iceberg confetti and tomato bits.” It’s through the details that Murphy transports, and keeps you firmly planted in the world of Celine and Julie.
Both Celine and Julie put deserts behind them, convincing themselves it was just a corrupted cowboy land – a myth world cast in violet light – which they were now safely out of. The real world felt brutal, yes, but also so beautifully visible, and they were finally in it.
As Murphy’s protagonists move out of their family homes and away to separate cities for school and other adult pursuits, they, perhaps inevitably, grow apart from each other beyond just the physical distance. But as the author states, while the two women navigate their own lives in different places, they move along “parallel tracks invisible to them” – the kind that only friends who were once so close end up traveling. The author shows us how friends who may not be around us anymore still shape us, playing a crucial role as we go about our days without them.
While Double Teenage is a beautiful, nostalgia-fueled look at friendship, it also explores broader, yet intertwined issues such as family trauma, self-harm, and systemic violence. A violent death in Celine’s family causes her to reflect on how her mother manages her emotions in front of her, putting on airs that she’s fine when really, as Celine says, “There’s something so wrong.” It’s a poignant look not only at a mother-daughter relationship, but how friends can become valuable sounding boards when we’re trying to understand our family’s behavior during difficult times.
Anyone can find something to relate to in Murphy’s depiction of the teenage years, particularly in how, as teens, we often feel the need to conform to certain narratives and meet perceived expectations that our peers and the media set out for us. When Julie takes an interest in a boy named Miguel, she doesn’t necessarily want him so much as she wants to fit one of these narratives:
Whether or not it made sense, some boy was going to touch Julie. The part was there as a negative space. She had her eyes shut. His body fit the space.
There’s intensity, there’s playfulness, and there’s insightfulness everywhere in Murphy’s Double Teenage. Between her throwback references to music and film of the ’90s and her often quite relatable descriptions of two young women discovering who they are, both together and separately, you may just think back to that first friendship that shook you – that stuck with you even as you drifted apart.
(BookThug, Fiction, Paperback, March 2016)
LESLEY LEROUX is a writer, editor and artist from Canada’s capital (originally the little island of Newfoundland). She graduated with a degree in journalism from Carleton University. Her fiction, nonfiction and photography have been published both in print and online, and she has occasionally dabbled in radio and television. She is a feminist, bibliophile and yogi who can be found tweeting about any of the above @LesleyLeRoux