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.