Mariko Tamaki gives good misfit. In a YA field crowded with stock outcasts, Tamaki’s weirdos stand out for never being merely the sum of a few obvious quirks or emotions. Nor are they princes- and princesses-in-exile, surrounded by hostile enemies, waiting for a Dumbledore to whisk them away. If one of Tamaki’s oddballs does find her way to some kind of happiness, it is more often through a clumsy process of trial and error, with an emphasis on the latter.
This is probably why Tamaki, for all the acclaim she has received (including multiple starred reviews and Book of the Year citations in this magazine), is not yet up there with the John Greens of the world. Her stories are themselves quirky things that resist easy categorization and refuse to behave like more mainstream fare.
Saving Montgomery Sole is Tamaki’s fifth book, following a novel and three graphic-novel collaborations. Like its titular hero, the new novel is smart, charming, unpredictable, and mildly frustrating.
Montgomery Sole is a teenager living in the fictional town of Aunty, California. It’s the kind of place where fun consists of watching high-school football and hanging out at the frozen yogourt place – which means it’s exactly the wrong kind of town for someone like Monty, who has two moms and an enormous chip on her shoulder.
She also has an obsession with mysteries and the occult. While her peers are big into “celebrity weddings, lip gloss, and expensive cars,” Monty spends hours on the Internet reading about “black holes, telekinesis, [and] spontaneous combustion.” The girls at school look at Monty like she’s “some sort of genetic experiment.” The one high-school club she participates in is the Mystery Club, of which she is the head and co-creator, and which consists of herself, her openly gay best friend Thomas, and a strangely ethereal, ultra-nerdy new girl named Naoki.
On a whim, Monty buys a crystal amulet (the Eye of Know) which purports to offer its wearer visionary powers. This ability may come in handy if Monty is forced to do battle with the anti-gay preacher who has moved to town with his strangely unemotional teenage son. Bad things seem to happen whenever Monty gets angry while wearing the amulet (a mean girl falls from the bleachers, a bullying boy has a seizure), but instead of feeling more powerful, she only feels more and more trapped.
What seems at first like the story of an angry misfit acquiring magical powers in preparation for an epic showdown turns out to be more about how angry misfits should work on not being so angry all the time. The preacher is a loser with zero followers, while his son is decent and tolerant. And the amulet is a dud; the only bad mojo is coming from Monty herself. When she starts to spiral, she gets some timely advice from friends and family. “I vowed long ago never to let some stupid kids make me bitter at a young age,” Thomas tells her. “That’s why they don’t touch me. Because I won’t let them. You shouldn’t, either.”
Saving Montgomery Sole is more subtle than your average YA tale. The novel’s message – jerks will always be jerks so don’t let them get you down – is a legitimate life lesson for young readers, but Tamaki’s open-ended approach to it comes at the cost of knowing if things turn out okay for Aunty’s oddballs. Monty and her friends could’ve hung around for another hundred pages, and I wouldn’t have minded a bit.