Eliza and Her Monsters

Although I have learned to embrace my geek side, I am lacking in one rather essential facet of geekdom: participation in fanfic.


I had a brief flirtation with (of all things) Pride and Prejudice fanfic around 1999.  By then, the BBC miniseries had been out for a few years, but people were totally obsessed.  There was this subsite of Pemberly.com called "Bits of Ivory" and I would read it sometimes (every day after school).  But I never thought of writing or creating anything--I really don't know if I have it in me to create something.  I enjoy commenting and chatting and picking things apart, but putting something together seems huge and imposing and it makes my brain curl up and die.  So I've never actually written anything myself.


Because of all that, I worried that I wouldn't be able to appreciate Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia.  I needn't have worried.  Although knowledge of fan terminology will enhance your reading experience, this is an exquisite book on its own terms, and I most highly recommend it.

Eliza Mirk has to survive the final seven months of high school, that hell where you're expected to conform to a list of social niceties that's impossibly long and also a total secret.  Except for when really awkward things happen to her, like a banner falling on her head and spreading glitter, herpes of the craft world. Kids laugh, but this is Eliza. Weird and dorky stuff always happens to her. It's almost no big deal. And this is okay. It makes it a lot easier to keep her secret identity ... a secret.

Unbeknowest to almost everyone, Eliza is the creator of the fantastically popular webcomic Monstrous Sea. And when I say popular, I mean this thing has a full-on fandom with a giant forum, fanfic of the webcomic, and an online store. But only two other people in the world know that LadyConstellation, creator of Monstrous Sea, is also Eliza Mirk, would-be-invisible high school girl. One of them, Emmy, is a tween genius in college who maintains Monstrous Sea's online existence. The other, Max, is basically the Thorin Oakenshield of the forums, wielding the mighty banhammer.

So when the new guy at school who doesn't talk but communicates via notes gives Eliza his prose version of the Monstrous Sea story, Eliza is stunned, flattered, and a little worried. Wallace's adaptation of her story brings her to tears--it's that perfect. Plus, he's pretty cool. But how awkward would it be for her to reveal herself as the author if Monstrous Sea after the fact? Their relationship progresses, but Eliza isn't the only one with secrets.

Eliza and Her Monsters has a relatively simple plot: girl meets boy, girl and boy fall in love, girl and boy have secrets that threaten their relationship, but girl and boy realize that they are pretty awesome together. It's what Zappia does with the details that turns this book into a stunning work of art. She touches on several deep themes in the book, yet it never feels melodramatic, overstuffed, or like a "problem novel." It simply is.

Eliza has this push-pull relationship with her position in fandom and as a creator. Even though the pressure to continuously produce high-quality art for her fans never lets up, Eliza drives herself to create because it's something inside of her that has to get out.

But Eliza is also different. She accepts it, and yet it's painful. Her parents don't take her seriously, the way they do her twin brothers. To them, she's Eggs--their weird daughter who only eats hard-boiled eggs and makes drawings on her computer for long stretches of time. They make no effort to figure out what it is their daughter is creating, or why it's such a big deal. The kids are school are no better: they squeak when she shows up or laugh in her face or say that they're afraid she's a demon. Granted, teenagers, when herded together and feeding off of each other's frenetic, Mountain Dew-fueled energy, say extremely brainless and nonsensical things. It still hurts.

So when Wallace doesn't recoil in terror from her grungy clothes and standoffish persona, Eliza begrudgingly starts to let him in. She introduces him to the fandom of the Children of Hypnos, a book series whose author had to walk away before completing the story. It's like if J.K. Rowling never finished Harry Potter. Wallace, in turn, introduces her to some friends at the indie bookstore (egads! interacting with other people!) and his family. It's a delicate dance of trust and words and art. Why doesn't Wallace speak unless he's at home? Why doesn't Eliza just tell him who she is and what she has created? It's complicated. Life is complicated, and even though being online might feel easier, you have to face the meatworld eventually.

This book triumphs in two ways: the portrayal of Eliza as a person and as a love letter to fandom--even the parts that aren't so nice. I could go on and on about this, but I'd spoil it all. Let Eliza and her authentic, artistic, anxious voice speak for herself.

An absolute must-read.

I received an ARC of this title from Edelweiss.

Comments

  1. Okay this sounds a lot more appealing than I expected from the cover or the title. I think I just assumed it would be another novel about mental illness like the author's debut (shame on me for making assumptions). I don't know if I'll pick this one up because life but happy to know a bit more about it as a title to recommend. Thanks for educating me!

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    1. Yes, I think that the "monsters" in the title will throw a lot of people off. It sounds like a "oh, these are my mental monsters" thing but while it does touch on that, she writes about actual monsters! I haven't read Made You Up but I mean to.

      There is definitely a mental illness component but it's not central. We know that it's part of Eliza's life and that it's something she takes medicine for and is working on. It's not some angst-ridden thing.

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  2. You have, of course, read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell?

    I confess to having written around 150 fan stories in my time, but not based on books. I was a media fan and wrote Star Trek TOS, Blake's 7 and Robin Of Sherwood. I have never regretted it. I learned a lot from it and had free feedback, which eventually led me to write - and sell - my own short stories. I even learned how to edit.

    But fan fiction is huge now. When I was writing it, there were print fanzines, which you took home and curled up in bed with, like books. There would be about 150 copies published, maybe more if it was popular. Now, it's all on line. My students know about it. Some of them, heaven help us, write fan fiction based on real people! I tell them I think it's tacky, but I'm not a teen.

    This book sounds good, a sort of cross between Fangirl and Lili Wilkinson's Green Valentine.

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    1. Ah yes, I have heard of RPF--it seems a bit awkward, especially if you write about people you know! I've not read Fangirl--a lot of my friends have conflicting opinions on it and I started the book several times and just couldn't get into it.

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  3. I haven't heard very much about this book until now, and you've made me super curious about it! I'm so glad you enjoyed it :) Wonderful review!

    Brittany @ Brittany's Book Rambles

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    1. Thanks! I think it's been flying under the radar, but it should really have way more hype.

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