There is some art that you discover early, perhaps at an age too young to truly appreciate it. That art continues to resonate throughout your life as your appreciation grows. Then there’s art that defines a period in your life. While it still holds a special place in your heart as you get older, when you revisit it, it doesn’t hold the same significance or evoke the same passion as it once did.
I’ve discovered by reading the memoir High School by Sara Quin and Tegan Quin that Tegan and Sara seem to have fallen into the latter category for me. It’s not that I didn’t like the book. It’s just that I didn’t love it as I had hoped. Overall it was an entertaining albeit a bit underwhelming of a read. If High School had come out around the era when the albums The Con (2007) and Sainthood (2009) did, I’m quite sure I would have devoured and absolutely adored it. The Con was a foundational album for my coming of age and coming out. I was obsessed with it. I listened to it incessantly for years. It was the music I put on as I walked through the city I lived in right after I cut my hair short for the first time and felt so exposed by being on the street looking gay.
I didn’t love Sainthood as much as The Con, but I loved Tegan and Sara enough then that my ex-girlfriend and I bought tickets to see them in Portland, planned to drive for 7 and a half hours across the border to go to the concert, only to be caught in a crazy snowstorm in the mountains with summer tires and forced to turn around and go home. Oh my god were we devastated. I actually only managed to see Tegan and Sara live for the first time at their 10th anniversary of The Con tour in 2017. It was an homage to my younger baby queer self to finally see them in concert. It was great, but it wasn’t the kind of magic it would have been had I seen them on the original tour.
That kind of sums up my experience of the memoir High School. My sense is it’s a book for Tegan and Sara fans that likely won’t much hold the interest of readers who aren’t already really into the band or the two women as queer music icons (which they undeniably are). While there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, my somewhat lukewarm response to the book made me realize I couldn’t really count myself as a big Tegan and Sara fan anymore. It felt very weird to realize this!
High School is divided into sections by grades 10, 11, and 12 as both women alternate telling stories about their lives in chronological order. The book focused more on their relationships with friends, first girlfriends, and parents than on their discovering playing and writing music. This choice surprised me. I wanted more details about how they wrote their first songs, especially given that they didn’t have any formal training in guitar. (I still find this unbelievable and impressive — although they do talk about early piano lessons as kids). I am also always impressed to read about queer teen girls who actually had, like, girlfriends in high school, even if they were secret girlfriends. I could only have dreamed of having a girlfriend!
For some people High School will evoke memories of their own high school years, but this didn’t really happen for me. My high school experiences were very different from theirs. Tegan and Sara write about partying with people in their twenties, going to raves, taking acid, being disinterested in school, and powerful friendships with girls that turned romantic and sexual. They also write about the intense conflicts they had with each other and their parents. I literally didn’t experience any of those things. This is in no way a judgement on them or others who see their high school experiences reflected in the Quin sisters’ — just an explanation of why I didn’t connect to their stories as much as others seem to have.
Overall this memoir is very much a companion piece to Tegan and Sara’s latest album, Hey I’m Just Like You. (Although I’ve read that the idea for the album — re-recording songs the sisters wrote when they were in high school — came about because they were researching and going through old things as part of the book writing process. So clearly the book came first.) I think for fans who are excitedly listening to the album, the book is a fun companion that adds context and depth to some of the songs. I’ve given the album a few listens, but to be honest I was underwhelmed. There goes another reason I might have been more into the memoir.
I listened to the audiobook version read by the authors and would definitely recommend that format. Along with their expressive voices, the audiobook includes snippets of song demos, home recordings of them talking, and at the end an interview they did with each other about the experience writing the book. I enjoyed the audiobook a lot with all the added value. If you’re familiar with the songs on Hey I’m Just Like You, it’ll be especially cool to hear the early demo versions of them in the audiobook.
Have you read High School? Do you consider yourself a big Tegan and Sara fan? What did you think of the book? I’m very curious to see if anyone else had a similar experience to me!