Book Club Review: “Eliza and Her Monsters”

31931941We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is a “Dewey Call Number” theme. This book comes from a Dewey Decimal Call Number range, and has to fit the theme of that range.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for bookclub. We’ll also post the next book coming up in bookclub. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own bookclub!

Book: “Eliza and Her Monsters” by Francesca Zappia

Publishing Info: Greenwillow Books, May 2017

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

Dewey Decimal Call Number: 800s (Literature, Writing)

Book Description: Her story is a phenomenon. Her life is a disaster.

In the real world, Eliza Mirk is shy, weird, and friendless. Online, she’s LadyConstellation, the anonymous creator of the wildly popular webcomic Monstrous Sea. Eliza can’t imagine enjoying the real world as much as she loves the online one, and she has no desire to try.

Then Wallace Warland, Monstrous Sea’s biggest fanfiction writer, transfers to her school. Wallace thinks Eliza is just another fan, and as he draws her out of her shell, she begins to wonder if a life offline might be worthwhile.

But when Eliza’s secret is accidentally shared with the world, everything she’s built—her story, her relationship with Wallace, and even her sanity—begins to fall apart. 

Kate’s Thoughts

My high school years were during the time before social media really became a huge thing. My parents had Internet, but it was a dial up connection that we could only use if we weren’t expecting or planning to make any pertinent phone calls. And honestly, I’m so relieved that the Internet wasn’t the big social zone that it is now, for regular people as well as celebrities. I think that teenage Kate would have both loved living a lot of her life online, but I also think that it would have been isolating in its own way (and given that I was bullied a fair amount, it probably would have opened up a huge target on my back from my peers). And that is where “Eliza and Her Monsters” comes in. As a teenager who suffered from social anxiety and depression, I saw a bit of me in Eliza, our main character who has found the online world to be more comforting than the real world. And as someone who has written some fanfiction in her life (and was a vaguely well known author in a niche fandom at one point, though I’m not telling which), the ups and downs of online artistry also spoke to me. But the core of Eliza herself, and how she interacted with those around her, didn’t do as much for me as one might think that it would.

But I want to start with what I liked here. I thought that Eliza’s social anxieties were pretty spot on in terms of characterization. Without really outwardly saying that she was suffering from it, you get a slow and well painted picture of what Eliza’s insecurities are like, how they hinder her, and how she tries to cope with them. It was refreshing to see this character portrayed in a realistic and honest way, and that while it was understandable that she would act in various ways, she wasn’t totally let off the hook when she was being a jerk to those around her. I also really liked that this book brings up the philosophical question of ‘what do artists owe their fans?’. Sure, this is something that has been going on for a long time, but with the advent of social media, now fans can not only interact with each other, but they now have the opportunity to address and interact with their favorite creators in a more direct way. And while this is great in lots of ways, in other ways, sometimes lines are crossed and fan entitlement gets a bit out of hand. From the “Song of Ice and Fire” fandom to the “Harry Potter” fandom to the wonderful world of comics across the board, sometimes healthy and relevant critiques of topics turn into “YOU OWE US THIS.” This book allows us to see that from the creator’s POV through Eliza and one of her favorite authors, and it’s a great way to raise these questions and get the reader to think about them.

But there were other things about this book that frustrated me. Mainly, I didn’t really care for Eliza, as relatable and realistic as she was. I think that seeing it from the perspective of an adult who had to tramp through that swamp of teen angst and came out on the other side, a lot of me was saying “goddammit, suck it up.” Teen Kate would have TOTALLY loved Eliza though, and given that this is, ultimately, written with teens in mind, I think that she probably works well. I also was a bit frustrated with her relationship with Wallace, if only because I felt like there were some things that she did that were SO manipulative and she never really was taken to task for it. I didn’t really like what it said about acceptable things in teen relationships.

Overall, I liked how “Eliza and Her Monsters” approached fandom, artistry, and teenage mental illness. I wish that I had liked the protagonist more, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Serena’s Thoughts

As Kate has lain out so nicely, my evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of this book is pretty similar. I don’t have the personal experience of existing as a creator on an online platform, but I follow various fandoms online fairly avidly and have witnessed first hand the strength in community that these groups can bring, as well as the viscous cycle of entitlement and possession that can also be on display at times. In these ways, I think this book is very much speaking to an ongoing struggle in today’s teens’ lives that I, like Kate, never had to deal with.

Like Kate, I was never part of the popular crowd in highschool. I wasn’t the most bullied either, and instead existed somewhere in the probably lucky “no one cares” zone of being unnoticed. I also had no other “version” of life or a representation of my life that I had to maintain, like today’s teens who must carefully navigate and manage not only their day-to-day activities, but also the version of themselves that exists online. Eliza, uncomfortable and shy in real life, has found a niche for herself online. But no social sphere comes without its own strings.

I very much enjoyed the exploration of creativity on an online platform. Eliza is both safely at a distance from those who interact with her online (one of the appeals of her online persona), but is also exposed and at the mercy of those same fans. No longer do fans need to write a letter and mail it in to an author who may or may not even look at their fan mail. Creators online are exposed across so many formats to the visceral reactions of the same fans whose admiration and appreciation they are hoping to garner. I think one of the best representations of the push/pull relationship of this kind is Bo Burnham’s raw, and almost tragic, song “Can’t Handle This.”

But, in general, I read books for the characters, so as much as I loved the themes that were tackled in this story, I had a similar hang up with Eliza as Kate did. I think Kate hit it on the nose when she mentioned the fact that she and I are reading this having come out on the other side of that hellish tunnel called “highschool.” Many years (yikes!) distanced from these same struggles, they begin to lose their edge. This is good, but it also presents a reality check when reading books like these. I don’t want to dismiss these problems as “just highschool stuff, get ready for REAL life, kids!” But…I’m still a 30 something woman reading this and that’s what I felt. So with that perspective, maybe there’s nothing wrong with this character for highschoolers themselves, and it’s probably touching on many relatable challenges. But there are many YA stories out there that present the challenges of their young protagonists in ways that are more approachable and sympathetic to their adult readers as well than this one did, which is a legitimate mark against it.

Kate’s Rating 7: This book brings up a lot of good questions about artistry and creativity, the relationship artists have with their fans, and mental illness, but I was put off by Eliza, as relatable as she could be at times.

Serena’s Rating 6: Many great themes are discussed, but the protagonist wasn’t as widely relatable as she could be to readers beyond highschool themselves. And as a reader who goes in mostly for characters, this put a pretty big dent in my enjoyment of the book.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of Eliza as a main character? Did you find her to be relatable and/or likable?
  2. Have you ever had a friend you met online, or know solely from online interaction? What do you think about the claim that online friends aren’t ‘real’ friends?
  3. Eliza has a complex relationship with the fans of her work. What do you think an artist owes their fans when it comes to content production, or characterization? Do they owe their fans anything?
  4. Eliza has a contentious relationship with her parents. What did you think of how they all interacted with each other? What could they have done differently?
  5. Have you ever followed an online work that is posted occasionally like “Monstrous Sea”? What was it? Is it still going on? If not, how did it end?

Reader’s Advisory

“Eliza and Her Monsters” is included on the Goodreads lists “YA Fiction Featuring Fangirls, Fanboys, or General Fandom”, and “YA Nerd/Geek Books”.

Find “Eliza and Her Monsters” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “Every You, Every Me” by David Levithan

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