CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 10 . . . . November 11, 2016
Suze Tamaki lives in Victoria, BC, with her dad and older sister, Tracie. Suze's a 12-year-old underachiever who spends a lot of her time buried in books. Her family is warmhearted but not always attentive or able to understand Suze's development. This becomes even more evident when Caroline shows up. Caroline is Suze and Tracie's biological mother who left the family when Suze was three. Suze has few memories of her. Tracie is furious and demands that Suze reject their mother completely. Their dad seems uncertain how to react. Her aunt warns Suze about Caroline's failings while her uncle thinks Caroline should get a chance for forgiveness. What should Suze do? She is genuinely conflicted, since she does feel the pain of abandonment, but can't help wanting to know more about this woman who is her mother. There are a lot of concurrent subplots, including Suze's attempt, with her friend Amanda, to stop the school district from replacing custodians with outside contractors.
A Month of Mondays is an intensely readable novel. It is full of fun, bright and natural dialogue. It has a lovable underdog narrator, someone to whom many readers will relate. And it is a lovely story about families, how they work and what happens when, inevitably, certain components of families stop working. There is lovely sense that Suze's family members, because they are incomplete and contradictory, are real people. I prefer reading about imperfect people rather than transparent characters with no inconsistencies; however, in this novel, the characters are not quite fully developed. Sometimes it feels like Anthony just spilled a collection of real people onto the pages, and this isn't the best strategy for storytelling. I heartily applaud this attempt to deeply understand why a mother might leave her kids and how one kid might respond to this, but I was never fully persuaded by the main story.
Suze's sister is under-developed as a character. Suze opens by describing how Tracie tries to be her mother, but that isn't displayed much in the book. The same goes for Suze's dad who seems harried and not that aware of what is going on. His character needed to be fleshed out more. Suze's aunt and uncle are both convincing and intriguing characters. I had some trouble believing in the character of Caroline, Suze's mom, or in her motivations or explanations, both to herself and others. Granted, it is a challenging task to explain how a nice, smart person could abandon their family, never get in touch and be so utterly clueless. Suze's struggle to figure out what to do, though, is both funny and heart-wrenching, and Anthony makes it clear why Suze would still want to figure out how a mom could fit into her life. There are deep emotions at play here, and they are handled well.
A Month of Mondays is, ultimately, a family story, not a school story, but much of the book takes place at school. And it is a very nuanced and well-realized setting. So many children's books are set at school, and so many are caricatures of the atmosphere and characters one might encounter there. In A Month of Mondays, we do get a few stock characters, such as the teacher who cares and the evil principal. Suze resents the principal because, even though Suze is often in trouble, the principal always threatens to call her mother, even though he should know that Suze doesn't have one. Suze is that classic kid who is smart but feisty and remains unchallenged at school. Only Mr. Baker, Suze's English teacher, recognizes Suze's untapped potential and basically tricks her into joining the honours English class. But Anthony makes these characters authentic and creates spaces that feel real and lived in.
As mentioned earlier, A Month of Mondays is a lot of fun to read. It is quite long, but it's a page-turner. This is mostly down to excellent dialogue and Suze's funny, often grumpy but always curious, take on the world. The other major component to the book, the plot, is not quite as strong. There are a lot of subplots, and many of them, such as some experiments gone wrong with Suze's hair, feel inessential. They are light entertainment but don't develop character or plot enough to seem worthy of inclusion. Of course, there is room for enjoyable scenes that do not exist simply to hammer home themes and issues, but the novel errs on the side of throwing everything in and letting the reader figure out what did or did not need to be included. There is a small disconnect between what Anthony wants to say and the story she ends up telling.
There are also some extra characters; I wasn't sure why Suze has three best friends when they are not particularly differentiated. And those differences that do exist don't seem to serve any crucial purpose. The title (and the themes it implies) isn't as integrated into the story as it could have been. I would have loved a real 'I hate Monday' theme, probing everything that implies and Suze's troubles at school and how it has sometimes let her down.
There is often a tension between producing an entertaining, readable book which doesn't completely stand up in hindsight and a strong thematic book which is dull to read. I much prefer the former as this kind of story usually includes a compelling narrator and lots of good writing. So I have no qualms about recommending this novel. The issues contained in the story will definitely stimulate thought and discussion, and it's virtually impossible not to love Suze Tamaki.
Kris Rothstein is a children's book agent and reviewer in Vancouver, BC.
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