YA Book Review: Saving Montgomery Sole
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The following review of Saving Montgomery Sole (Roaring Brook Press, April 19, 2016) by Mariko Tamaki is from Food, Fitness & Fiction Contributing Editor Amber Lee.
Here’s a description of the book from Amazon:
Montgomery Sole is a square peg in a small town, forced to go to a school full of jocks and girls who don’t even know what irony is. It would all be impossible if it weren’t for her best friends, Thomas and Naoki. The three are also the only members of Jefferson High’s Mystery Club, dedicated to exploring the weird and unexplained, from ESP and astrology to super powers and mysterious objects.
Then there’s the Eye of Know, the possibly powerful crystal amulet Monty bought online. Will it help her predict the future or fight back against the ignorant jerks who make fun of Thomas for being gay or Monty for having lesbian moms? Maybe the Eye is here just in time, because the newest resident of their small town is scarier than mothmen, poltergeists, or, you know, gym.
I’m not gonna lie, this book made me cry. It’s short and sweet, with a charming myopic small town setting and a cast of adorable eclectic characters. Surprisingly not fantasy/sci-fi at all. Although the general tone and high school characters are much more suited for middle grade, the heavy themes throughout the novel such as religion, conformity, and oppression are all universal. The narrator, Monty Sole, is the centerpiece of the story and so full of personality she’s difficult not to love.
The sense of voice is definitely the defining aspect of the book. Monty’s descriptions of her daily life, so vivid and true to who she is, are permeated with allusions to the cryptids, magic, and curiosities that she spends her days thinking about. When reading many novels, I often have to search for evidence of the protagonist actually being “weird” or “quirky;” but in Saving Montgomery Sole, Monty simply is. The book’s prose is gorgeous but simple and honest to character with whimsical offbeat metaphors and atmospheric descriptions of setting.
While I kind of expected there to be more aspects of magic and such with the Eye of Know, it was fine without it. Tamaki is excellent at keeping the story moving. At all times, I had to know what happened and couldn’t stop reading. The author successfully built tension throughout the story and made me feel invested in the characters. I do wish the novel was longer with more attention to characters like Naoki, Thomas, and Monty’s parents.
Relatability is vital in any novel, especially a YA one, so I took it as a good sign that my overwhelming first impression of the book was “Oh my god this is EXACTLY like my life!” Hyperbole, of course, but it was undeniable how endearing Monty’s story is. Her exasperation with feeling alone and misunderstood is a common one, along with frustration over miscommunication with her friends and family and struggling to feel accepted. It also helps that Monty and I both live in California, go to high school, and listen to Death Cab for Cutie. The story is also full of small moments that resonate on a universal level. Monty’s little lists of stuff she’s interested in, how she spends her time reading obscure Wikipedia articles, and how she loves frozen yogurt, all make her feel real. I would have also loved to also see the minor characters given this much development—especially Tiffany (I still don’t know what her narrative purpose was) – but the banter and the little drops of insight about their lives was what made up Monty’s world of Aunty, California.
However, as amazing as Monty and her friends were, there is no way they are 16 years old. Everything from her worldview to her thought process read as a middle schooler and I kept flipping to the beginning of the novel to check if she was actually 16 and in high school. Even the school curriculum in her classes (namely Outsiders) was a novel I read in sixth or seventh grade. A big thing that irked me was Monty’s attitude towards her classmates. It’s a really common theme in media about high school that all the boys are immature jocks and all the girls are vapid brats and a lot of people actually think this, but the way Monty’s surroundings proved this just broke the spell of realism a little for me. There is just no way that everyone in the school except for three people are caricatures of high school life dropped right out of a movie.
The only thing that really made Saving Montgomery Sole seem appropriate for an older audience was how it addressed the social issues that plague Monty’s life. The Mystery Club trio is made up of Monty (who has two moms), and Thomas (who’s gay), and Naoki (half Japanese, half Canadian). In the small mostly-white town of Aunty, it’s natural that the three friends stick together. The big looming danger is when Reverend White enters the scene, a carbon-copy of Westboro Baptist Church. The rows and rows of Reverend White posters illustrated the slight unreality of abject terror, the lingering constant paranoia that comes with feeling unsafe. It’s the shared feeling of anyone in a minority or oppressed group, and it is written so honestly. There was a vital conversation in which the main trio briefly discuss how isolating it feels to be unsafe and that it’s important to not shut out other people who can empathize—I wish this had been expanded upon even more. Even though sometimes Monty acts irrationally, her motivations are always spelled out and she always has to face the consequences. The reader follows her spiraling more and more, unable to talk to people about what she’s going through. When she finally shares what she’s going through with her friends and family, it’s a real tearjerker moment that not only shows the deep love between the characters, but makes the story the vulnerable slice of life it is.
Saving Montgomery Sole is a great, quick read. Although it left me wanting more, I found the book to be charming, wistful, and thoroughly heartfelt.
To learn more about Mariko Tamaki and her work, visit her website. And here are a few other reviews of Saving Montgomery Sole:
Amber Lee, a high school senior from Irvine, California, is an editor for the Beckman Chronicle. She likes having too many hobbies at the same time to actually really improve at any of them: like reading, writing, art, useless historical research, drums, guitar, webcomic-ing, boxing, Muay Thai, and critical consumption of mass media. You can follow her on Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram.
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