My only regret is that the ARC I received of this wasn’t completely in color. This is understandable — graphic novels ain’t cheap! — but I was so in love in with the illustrations on the few pages that were full-color glossy that I know I lost a little bit of the story’s impact by only reading the rest on a cheaper b&w paper (plus it was harder to differentiate between some of the characters in grayscale.)
But oh, that full-color art that I did have! Kate Glasheen works in watercolor and ink, and the effect is magnificent. I mean, I appreciate digital art as much as the next person, but I adored the manual paint effects achieved here. The spills of color felt exceptionally well-suited to telling a story set in the pre-Internet era, before the digital world gave us a greater expectation of precision. Even more subtly, watercolor’s tendency to resist definition really suits a book about a protagonist who feels very much the same way.
Claire is a teenager in 1980s upstate New York, growing up in the struggling industrial town of Troy. They dress like a boy and don’t feel comfortable thinking of themself as a girl, which raises a lot of eyebrows from both strangers and people closer to them. Some people are awesome, like their best friends Greg and Josh, and their Mom and older brother Owen. Some are less great. Into that latter category fall, unfortunately, Claire’s dad and other brother Brad.
Claire just wants to have a normal life, but society keeps insisting on slapping a label on them and being really fucking awful when they do anything perceived as stepping out of the box they’re allowed to exist in. To cope, Claire turns to that mainstay of small town American life: alcohol. After they drunkenly run someone over on their bicycle, they’re court-ordered to rehab.
Rehab is, shockingly, a really good experience. Once Claire gets over their discomfort, they find themself making fast friends with three others in their cohort: Pete, Erica and Tonya. All three are perhaps more hardcore in their addictions than Claire is, but they all soon bond, sharing the demons that drive them and working together on the exercises that their counselor Charlie has them doing.
But the other three know something that Claire doesn’t, that rehab isn’t the real world. Will their friendships, never mind their sobriety, last outside of the oasis rehab has provided?
This is perhaps the most honest look at rehab I’ve ever read, and definitely one of the most appreciative. Charlie and his staffer Beatrice are both saints, and the lessons they teach the kids about emotional resilience and coping with addiction are both clearly written and incredibly powerful. Honestly, reading this felt a little bit like going to see a good therapist myself.
And that, I think, is the reason I so cherish this book and want to make sure it’s widely available for others to read. Getting to the point of being able to ask for and actually receive quality therapy — and even more so for gender and addiction issues and the intersection thereof — is not an easy thing. I’ve had so many friends who, after finally making it to the point of being willing and able to go to therapy, find themselves discouraged by the treatment they’re receiving. Not all therapists are suited to all patients. This book, on the other hand, gives out excellent, judgment-free advice that will hopefully tide readers over until they find the help that works for them.
Which isn’t to say that this book is some sort of cure-all. Claire’s journey is difficult and painful, and they lose a lot of people along the way. But that realism only underscores how valid the advice is in learning how to cope with pain in a healthy manner. Constellations is also a shockingly good reminder of how different things used to be, and how much better they are now. Progress is a constant struggle, as we strive to improve ourselves and the world at large, bit by bit, as and when we can. People forget that sometimes.
Constellations by Kate Glasheen was published May 9 2023 by Holiday House Books and is available from all good booksellers, including