Review: Beauty Tips for Girls by Margaret Montgomery
When bullied fifteen-year-old Katy runs away from Ayshire to London for breast-reduction surgery, only her humorous letters to the advice columns of a magazine called Misty, adverts, to-do lists and the accounts of others are left behind for us and her teacher, Miss Jane Ellingham, to decipher. Uptight schoolmarm by day, lonely plain ‘Jane’ at night, Miss Ellingham searches for the missing girl in these fragments, and, increasingly, her own missing self.
Playfully intertextual, the central fictional magazine draws heavily on the real Misty comic for girls made popular in the 1970s-80s. Unlike its imaginary namesake, Misty was a macabre affair and enticed a generation of girls into horror story-telling. No beauty tips or advice columns, but readers could ask the mystical ‘Girl of the Mists’ questions about her life and receive advice by proxy about their own. Though what they could gleanfrom gothic tales of satanic cults, schoolgirl sacrifices, evil scientists and parallel worlds was likely to be moralistic. The slightest lapse invited danger, poetic justice and exquisite suffering. Not so here, but one of Misty’s stories, in particular, appears to have influenced Montgomery’s innovative cut-up construction – ‘The Four Faces of Eve’, in which Eve discovers she’s been assembled from the broken corpses of three girls. This would seem to correspond to the multiple perspectives that construct versions of Katy in the book: her teacher Jane Ellingham; Dan, an exciting but naïve activist; Donna, his sister; Dr Danjani, the mercantile plastic surgeon; and Corrine, Katy’s alcoholic mother.
Even without prior knowledge of Misty, however, it’s clear that Montgomery’s central theme is the creation of ‘woman’, through language as much as through plastic surgery. This novel is not nearly as light-hearted as the blurb on the back suggests. Rather than ‘hilarious consequences’, Katy’s interactions with Misty magazine establish a plot that turns on the consequences of words: a young girl running away from her alcoholic mother and the boys in her class who tease her about her body. When her teacher takes it upon herself to find the missing schoolgirl, the transformative journey is mapped out by her internal discourse and omniscient narration, which come to dominate the book. Katy’s exciting online chats with Dan, while utopian, provide an alternative to Miss Ellingham’s controlled veneer and predictably: as we can tell from their writing styles, these opposites attract. Her mother Corrine’s first-person testimony to her AA group plays out yet another ‘Katy’. The ‘real’ girl remains a pivotal absence throughout, sketched out only in the impressions she has left behind and the fragments we presume she has assembled.
The book starts out promisingly, with amusing juxtapositions of quotations that bring us closer to Katy, or her editorial interventions at least. While the writing is clever and successfully avoids clichéd depictions of teenage life, much of the plot falls back on the conventions of young adult fiction to draw together the reassuring ending, love-matches and Miss Ellingham’s transformation. This slightly diminishes the book’s more vibrant discordant elements, such as why Miss Ellingham remained suspended in adolescence, functioning in an adult world but connected more to the young Katy than with anyone else. This disjoint between innovative narrative style and conventional plot perhaps recommends the book to a wider readership than young adult, who may find it a unique reading experience. Regardless, it remains a readable book with questions to raise.
Beauty Tips for Girls by Margaret Montgomery
Cargo Publishing, RRP £8.99, 282 pages