Sunday, September 14, 2008

My Tiki Girl

“Maggie Keller used to be a lot of things. She used to be popular. She used to be normal. But that was before the accident—the one she thinks she caused. The car accident that killed her mother. Now Maggie is a Frankenstein girl held together with screws and rods—a freak with a limp and a scar. Maybe that’s why she is drawn to Dahlia Wainwright, the new girl at school who is as brainy as she is bizarre…"

I picked up an ARC of My Tiki Girl, by Jennifer McMahon, at PLA last spring, and just got around to reading it over the weekend. It begins, “All the girls in tenth grade hate Dahlia Wainwright.” Once I started, I couldn’t put it down.

The girls hate Dahlia for the usual reasons—she’s prettier than they are and, worse, she doesn’t care what they think. She wears clothes from the Salvation Army, army boots, and “pinup girl lipstick.” She hangs out alone, sneaking off to the soccer field to smoke clove cigarettes and read poetry whenever she gets a chance. Still grieving for her mom, abandoned by her popular friends, Maggie longs for a new friend who’s able understand who she’s become. She’s been watching Dahlia since school started, “long enough to think that maybe she’s the one.”

The connection is instant. Dahlia reads her a poem, offers her some licorice, and invites her to be in a band. From that day forward, the girls are inseparable, and Maggie is drawn increasingly into the world of Dahlia’s unstable, but compelling family. Dahlia’s mom, Leah, christens her “LaSamba.” Dahlia is “Tiki Girl;” and Dahlia’s brother, Jonah, is “Zamboni.” Leah, herself, is “Birdwoman,” named for a doll given to her by a friend in the mental institution where she’d been committed. McMahon does a great job of creating the instability of this family on the page, cranking the tension subtly as Leah goes deeper into schizophrenic behavior and the adventures she concocts grow more and more dangerous.

But the real tension, also beautifully crafted, is that Maggie is attracted to Dahlia and doesn’t know what to do about it. Does Dahlia feel the same way? Sometimes it seems she does; but Maggie just can’t be sure. And to make things more confusing, Troy Farnham, one of the most popular guys in school, auditions for their band. When Dahlia lets him in he develops a big crush on her, and she starts to act as if she might feel the same way.

So, who does Dahlia love? I won’t tell you the answer or how it plays out, just that it was believable, heartbreaking, hopeful…and true.

Like the best YA novels, My Tiki Girl deals with typical teen-age challenges: the pleasures and insecurities of friendship, the delicious and frightening intensity of first love, the often painful growth that comes with greater independence. What I loved best about the book, though, was the way it showed that love is love. The love one teenage girl has for another girl not only feels like heterosexual love, but can play out in exactly the same way.

If you know a girl struggling with her sexuality or one who knows exactly who she is—but hasn’t quite figured out what to do about it yet—give her My Tiki Girl. She’ll love it!


Andrew Karre said...

I wanted this book VERY badly for Flux when it was being shopped as a manuscript. I loved it

Barbara Shoup said...

Ah, great minds working in tandem, yet again:-)