Review: Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

I received this book for free from ALA in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca ZappiaEliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia
Published by Greenwillow on May 30, 2017
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 400
Format: ARC
Source: ALA
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four-half-stars

In the real world, Eliza Mirk is shy, weird, and friendless. Online, Eliza is LadyConstellation, anonymous creator of the wildly popular webcomic Monstrous Sea. Eliza can’t imagine enjoying the real world as much as she loves her digital community, and 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 Eliza 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.

With illustrations from Eliza’s webcomic, as well as screenshots from Eliza’s online forums and snippets of Wallace's fanfiction, this uniquely formatted book will appeal to fans of Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona and Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.

For once the comparisons in the description are one hundred percent on point. I was thinking of Nimona every time I read one of the comic excerpts, though the stories are very different (and I didn’t really care about Monstrous Sea at all). The subject matter of the story itself obviously hearkens to Fangirl, though there’s a difference of tone and scale here. I’d say it’s like Fangirl meets Letters to the Lost, adding in the darkness and epistolary sort of elements of the latter. Eliza and Her Monsters is a beautiful, painful book about mental health and writing, and if those things appeal to you, you need to read it.

Starting with the obvious, Eliza Mirk is a bit like Cath from Fangirl. They both shut themselves away from the IRL world and live in their fan fiction, due to social anxiety. However, Eliza’s actually way more reclusive than Cath, and she’s in a way less healthy place. Cath grew up close to her family, and she did have friends before college. Eliza’s basically never had anything but Monstrous Sea and the friends she made in the fandom for her own work. Eliza’s every thought brims with her desire to escape into fiction and never come out.

At times, Eliza and Her Monsters really hurts to read. Eliza’s in so much pain, and she needs therapy really badly. She thinks she’s handling everything, but she’s very much not. One of her refrains is that she doesn’t care what she looks like, while simultaneously wishing that she didn’t have a physical body at all and hoping to find a magical place where no one cares what you look like. For the duration of this novel, I wanted to wrap Eliza in a big giant hug. She needs more communities of nerd friends, which thankfully she does find. There’s nothing like nerd friends. <3

Eliza has a loving family, but they don’t get her. It’s frustrating to read sometimes, because her parents keep pushing her in really unhelpful ways because they so completely do not understand their daughter. She’s an extreme introvert with a love of quiet introspection and fictional worlds surrounded by a family of active extroverts. Her parents know something isn’t quite right, but they keep proffering solutions that would help them, like trying a new sport. There’s love there, but without understanding even love can be toxic.

Though there is a nice arc between Eliza and her family, I’d have liked to see this expanded a bit. Her parents realize, as much as they can, that they have been doing the wrong things, and they do eventually encourage Eliza to start therapy. Where I’d have liked more is with Eliza’s brothers. She finds out that she’d been putting them in a little box and that they were more complex than she realized, and also that they cared for her; I’d have loved a scene with her taking action and trying to show she cares for them. Church and Sully (short for Churchill and Sullivan) are the silliest names though, and a bit distracting since they’re not relevant to the story.

The romance I actually have deeply complex feelings about, which isn’t necessarily normal for me, and which I don’t think is a bad thing in this case. Wallace and Eliza are both going through some shit. They bond over Monstrous Sea, with Eliza pretending to be a fellow fan, not the creator, as they pass notes back and forth (not just in class; they actually write notes to one another even when they’re sitting together at lunch rather than speaking). It’s cute, though rather strange, but it’s what these poor little ducks need to do, and it is explained.

Wallace and Eliza are so very cute as they start out. They’re both so dainty of feeling and so bad at interacting, but they slooooowly feel their way towards a relationship, and the ship is real. I absolutely love the scene where he asks to kiss her a whole lot (btw Eliza I’ve thought those exact same things before). Their relationship gets more complicated though, as they get together earlier than is normal in most contemporary romances. They both screw up (and in really big, scary ways–even more than the impending doom of the Monstrous Sea reveal). It’s painful, and you’re not left with that perfect magic ship feeling, but they also are working through their issues and getting therapy and working on things in a way that’s really meaningful and rarely shown in fiction.

What I struggled the most with in Eliza and Her Monsters was Monstrous Sea itself. Just like in Fangirl, the snippets were my least favorite part, though I think most of them were from Wallace’s transcription, but I’m not sure. (They also might be different in the finished copy.) I’m not remotely invested in Monstrous Sea, and I didn’t enjoy the snippets of it in the book, so I had to keep suspending my disbelief about it’s massive popularity.

That said, I do appreciate how Monstrous Sea and the fictionalized book series that Eliza loved as a child, Children of Hypnos, are clearly metaphors for fighting the monsters of mental illness. Eliza relates to one of her weakest characters, because he’s afraid of everything but keeps trying. Most of her characters don’t have family because Eliza feels alone. Monstrous Sea is a way for Eliza to consider her anxiety and her self-image without really ever consciously doing so. She can personify her anxiety as a monster, something that can be dealt with, can be slain. That alone isn’t enough, but I love how this book shows the impact that fiction can have emotionally and how important it can be for the creator and the reader.

Like Zappia’s debut Made You UpEliza and Her Monsters walloped me directly in the feels. Zappia is a must read author.

Favorite Quote:

No, not shipping–shipping’s great, and I do it all the time, but I mean . . . the characters themselves. The struggles they have to go through, and when you really love them, how much they affect you. When the characters are good, they make you care about everything else. That’s why I draw them. It probably sounds dumb, but they’re like real people to me. And this will probably sound worse, but sometimes I like them better than real people. I can empathize with characters. Real people are harder.

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

 

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2 responses to “Review: Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia”

  1. Gina says:

    Hmm…though I understand what brought the read down a bit for you, I’m still thoroughly curious…after all, so much of that is true in real life (different presence online versus reality). Thanks for the spotlight and for providing a great review!

  2. Leah says:

    I am beyond excited for this one. I adored Made You Up, and I have seen lots of great things about this one. Is it May 30 already?

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