Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2015. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“I am standing in a hailstorm, and I’m the only one who can see it’s raining.”
Montgomery Sole—better known to her friends and family as Monty—is a sixteen year old Canadian girl living in Aunty, California with her moms, and her sister, Tesla. Her younger sister is athletic and outgoing, fitting easily into the California culture, but Monty sticks out like a sore thumb. Moreover, she is proud of her difference, and disdainful of the people who surround her, trying so hard to conform. But she has gathered her own small coterie of misfits around her, including her best friend Thomas, who is gay, and Naoki, a slightly spacey fellow Canadian in America. Together, they form the Mystery Club, sharing a fascination with mysterious and unexplained phenomena. When a homophobic internet evangelist moves to Aunty, and begins preaching about saving the American family, Monty’s life at Jefferson High goes from difficult to intolerable. But when Monty orders the Eye of Know from a strange website for the next Mystery Club experiment, things get even more complicated as her tendency to lose her temper begins to have inexplicable consequences.
Monty is a realistic character, but one who is difficult to coexist with in the first person narration. She is thin-skinned and very focused on how she thinks others perceive or judge her, possibly because she is so judgemental herself. Whereas Momma Jo and Mama Kate, and Thomas have all found ways to shrug off the homophobia they encounter, Monty cannot seem to help but take it personally. Her already raw nerves are pressed beyond the breaking point by the arrival of the Reverend White and his son, Kenneth. When she finally reaches her tipping point, she lashes out not only at those who have harmed her, but also at her family and friends, angry that they are not as infuriated by the injustice as she is. When not dominated by all this anger and resentment, her narration sometimes has an “and then” quality as she trudges reluctantly through her days at Jefferson High.
One of Monty’s more fraught relationships is with her younger sister, Tesla. Although she seems to fit in better than Monty, she has her own struggles. Tesla is coping in part by becoming curious about prayer and religion, which surrounds her in Aunty. Everyone on her highly competitive soccer team prays to win, and Tesla worries that she may be sabotaging the team because she is the only one not praying. This curiosity makes Monty furious, because religiously motivated homophobia has harmed their family, and Mama Kate’s parents are always trying to coerce her with their fundamentalist beliefs. But Tesla is young enough to not quite understand all of this. Meanwhile, Monty seems unable to see that her own fascination with supernatural phenomena comes from a similar place, though she has latched onto something that has never directly harmed her. Rather, their shared interest has formed the Mystery Club into a supportive community of misfits.
In an otherwise realistic novel, the mysterious Eye of Know becomes a device of introspection as much as magic. Despite many experiments, the Mystery Club has never been able to replicate a supernatural phenomenon, and at first the Eye of Know seems no different. But then some bad things happen to people who are picking on Monty when she loses her temper, and she begins to wonder if the Eye might just be giving her the power to fight back. She seems to want to believe, perhaps because it gives her feeling of control just when things seem to be slipping away from her. But when Thomas and Naoki try to counter-balance her darker tendencies, she pushes them away.
It eventually becomes clear that Tamaki is subtly leaning towards a cautionary tale. Monty’s anger is damaging her relationships with her friends and family, and her judgemental attitude is toxic, harming her as much as those around her. Through the character of Tiffany, the local frozen yogurt girl, Monty catches a glimpse of what her life might be like in a decade. At first that doesn’t seem so bad, but even as Monty’s life seems to be unraveling, it becomes clear that Tiffany isn’t exactly living the dream either. The ending brings the book together well, reflecting on family, religion, and social status, but a lot of readers will never make it that far.
You might also like This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki