Saving Montgomery Sole by Mariko Tamaki
Tamaki, Mariko (2016). Saving Montgomery Sole.
Great for: Fans of The Craft, fans of Mariko Tamaki’s book Skim, fans of Pete Hautman’s book Sweetblood, fans of Ghost World by Daniel Clowes, fans of Steve Chbosky’s The Perks of Being A Wallflower or its film adaptation, fans of Emily Carroll’s GN adaptation of Laurie Halse Andersen’s book Speak, or Jacqueline Woodson’s book From The Notebooks of Melanin Sun.
Mariko Tamaki, author of graphic novels Emiko Superstar, This One Summer, Skim, and some She-Hulk comics, penned this prose YA novel in 2016–a year where many adults and teens alike felt the world as we knew it shifting and witnessed horrifying changes in the political landscape of our society. This book riffs on those themes, exploring the rage, fear, panic, and power of a creative, lonely teenage girl growing up in hostile suburbia.
16-year-old Montgomery Sole lives with her two moms and her eight-year-old sister Tesla in the small suburban town of Aunty, California. Aunty is a flat town of frozen yogurt shops, preppy class posturing, and uniformity—and Monty has never fit in. She wears her mom Bobo’s overalls to school, which leads to people assuming that she’s a lesbian, a goth, or a hippie, and her main friends are members of the Mystery Club, a group that gathers to talk about unexplained phenomena like hypnosis, aliens, table-tipping, seances, and cryptids. Her best friends Naoki and Thomas are strange like she feels she is. But Monty’s precarious sense of safety starts to topple when an evangelical pastor named White moves to town and his son Kenneth starts attending Monty’s school. Posters about reviving the American family appear all over town, and Monty walks into school one day to find every locker covered in plastic crosses that the administration seems slow to remove. Panicking, she turns to the Eye of Know, a $5.99 amulet she ordered on the Internet, which promises to offer psychic insight to the world around her—and she discovers that when she’s wearing the necklace, she has the power to hurt people who say terrible things. Full of gathering rage and panic, Monty strikes out at the world, though at the same time she is starting to isolate herself from her friends, who don’t seem to believe that the threat Monty feels from Pastor White is real. Is the whole world actually being taken over by evangelical evil? Is magic really the only way Monty can possibly stay safe?
The main critique I have seen of this book on Goodreads is that its central protagonist either acts too young for her age or is too prickly and unlikeable. Personally, I think that this depiction of an intellectually brilliant but emotionally reckless and hot-headed teenager was spot-on. For me, it evoked the same feelings of panic and anger and terror that I remember from my own high school years. Teenagers are weird, have poor impulse control, and lack the agency to deal with their problems in restrained, sensible ways—and at the same time, their problems are pretty huge. Monty sees her friend Thomas threatened by bullies, is harassed routinely by girls at school, and isn’t taken seriously by her administration. Posters around her town insist that her kind of family shouldn’t even exist. She is worried about freaking her parents out by expressing her concerns. Her response is to become sullen, mean, and a little bit reactionary, and to turn to occult methods to strike back against the mean girls who call her moms dykes and photograph them in public or the homophobes who throw things at Thomas. What vaguely goth teen wouldn’t do the same? Likewise, Monty’s squabbles with her friend Naoki about Naoki’s desire to befriend the pastor’s son, or her misguided hatred toward the obsessive dieters at her local frozen-yogurt shop are perhaps not totally feminist, but nor are they unusual for teen girls who don’t have a choice but to be seen as unruly, weird outsiders.
The narrative of this book doesn’t completely acknowledge whether or not magic is real, but it’s treated as a distinct possibility. I love also that Monty and her friends’ obsession with hypnosis, the occult, magic, and mystery does not result in any of this being marked as evil—it’s just a way for them to reckon with the actual totally incomprehensible nature of the world around them.
I would definitely call this an #lgbtreads book, even though Monty’s sexuality is unaddressed. Monty’s two competent parents and best friend Thomas are gay, and the central plot has to do with Monty’s perception that a growing malicious evangelical homophobic movement is overtaking her town. Monty’s isolation as the child of two women is an underrepresented narrative in fiction. The number of gay partners with children has spiked since the nineties, and representations of the alienation of children with gay parents is important. Thomas also is a solid depiction of a high school gay boy—canny and cynical, a little silly, with a thick skin developed through years of bullying and a penchant for dating older men out of a conviction that it isn’t safe to find a boyfriend his own age.
Ultimately the book isn’t about the total end of the world—Monty’s two good moms and many good friends manage to make her feel protected from the bad and evil things that do exist. The threat of an evangelical takeover of the city of Aunty or the state of California does not materialize, and nobody tries to break up Monty’s family. It’s perhaps unrealistically hopeful, as since 2016, there have been even more polarizing events and signs of mob rule in the American political landscape. But regardless of its conclusions, I am SHAKEN by how much it makes me viscerally remember being 16 and how things that were or could be the end of the world felt like something only I could see and something I could only hope to deal with by using magic.
It’s so, so good.