Twin sister indie-pop duo Tegan and Sara have always specialized in remaking well-worn forms in their own image — from their early days turning coffee shop confessionals into sharp power pop to their recent emergence as Top 40 contenders who can write glossy dance-pop with a uniquely nuanced urgency, Now, they’ve re-imagined the rock star memoir. High School is a lot like their songs: complexly intimate, smartly crafted, and packing a subtle emotional wallop. The pair co-wrote the book, alternating authorship between chapters and focusing exclusively on their teenage years as they map out their symbiotic coming-of-age chaos. “There is . . . great comfort that comes from traveling through life with a witness,” Tegan writes.
The idea to cut the narrative off just before their career began to take off is refreshing in itself, allowing them to hone in on the kind of personal day-to-day detail most books of this kind seem to roll through merely as a means of setting up the biographical roots of an artist’s rock star myth. The book opens, adorably, in “grade ten.” They grew up in Calgary, Alberta, during the mid-Nineties, fighting like Ray and Dave Davies, worshipping Nirvana, and going to raves and punk shows. The depictions of aimless, vaguely dangerous, teenage partying (of which they did quite a lot) are especially well-rendered, like something out of a Hold Steady song. Their relationship thrives on a combative closeness; at one point the sisters’ dramatic door slamming gets so bad their mom’s boyfriend Bruce is forced to take the doors off their hinges lest he go insane.
One day, they come across Bruce’s guitar in a storage nook (“The weight of the wood felt intimate, touching almost all of me at once,” Sara writes). They start writing songs, and eventually win a battle-of-the-bands at a local club that leads to a record deal (their friends, who are too young to get in, cheer wildly from outside the venue). The emotions that fuel those songs echo the experience that defines the book’s other major theme beyond music: their struggles and revelations as they try to find “first loves” and eventually come out as a gay in a conservative, Western Canadian culture that now seems, in some ways, almost like 50 years ago, not just 20. There’s a tensely rendered scene at a family event where some male relatives talk about the waitresses at Hooters, and some of the book’s most heartbreaking moments come as they navigate a difficult space where friendships end and relationships might begin. Those explosively detailed depictions of their earliest experiences trying to find girlfriends are worthy of an excellent YA novel, thanks to Tegan or Sara’s unsparingly real, matter-of-fact prose style. “There could be nothing worse than being called a lesbian,” Sara writes. “Especially if you were one.” What emerges is a quietly heroic rock and roll origin story.