Review || Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Genre: YA Contemporary | Diversity: Anxiety rep
My Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.🌙

Eliza and Her Monsters is not just another contemporary.

At the age of 18, Eliza is the anonymous creator of a web comic and online phenomenon, Monstrous Sea—but she doesn’t talk to anyone offline. When she meets Wallace, a Monstrous Sea superfan and brilliant fan fiction writer, her way of life completely changes. No longer completely tied to an online world, Eliza struggles to maintain her anonymity, even from Wallace. Meanwhile, she has to figure out how to write an ending to the series she’s worked so hard to create. I read this book on the brilliant recommendation of the lovely Marie @ Drizzle and Hurricane Books, and I’m so glad I picked this up.

Francesca Zappia is clearly a talented artist, and her inclusion of Eliza’s artwork in the story took this one step further than the average contemporary novel.

As I read, I discovered more about Monstrous Sea, which is its own world with its own lore and magic. I found myself desperately wishing there was a whole book of Monstrous Sea, because it’s definitely something I would devour. Zappia does an amazing job of combining elements of online conversations and posts, so that I got a really good feel for Eliza’s online world as well. Eliza’s two best friends are people she’s never met IRL, but they each have a distinctive voice that comes through in their message threads; as a writer, I was blown away.

Eliza Mirk is the kind of character that either makes or breaks a story. In my opinion, she makes this one.

I really related to Eliza as an artist, strangely. Although none of my work has ever come close to being as famous as Monstrous Sea, Eliza’s desire to maintain her artistic integrity while being literally invisible IRL really resonated with me. As a writer, few people I encounter in my daily life have so much as read my blog, much less any of my fiction. Eliza’s emotions at 18 reminded me of my young self and almost made me weirdly nostalgic for that time of my life, in all its grittiness.

That being said, it should be acknowledged that Eliza is an unlikable character.

She’s angsty to the extreme. Despite having parents who love her and give her everything she could ever need, she resents them for not understanding what her art really means. Plenty of people deal with family situations that are much worse than what Eliza does… yet I related to this too.

When I was in high school, I hated my parents. They didn’t understand why I chose to spend all my spare time writing bits and pieces of a novel on scraps of notebook paper. They didn’t take me seriously as an artist (although pretty much no one did). They wanted me to go to a good college and get a real career, and I resented them for how much they wanted me to be a successful adult. While I can see why some people would find Eliza’s treatment of her parents problematic, I related to it so much, and I think this is the first time I encountered this representation of what my life was like as a teen. I do think Eliza grows over the course of the novel, that she learns to communicate better with her parents.

Ultimately, this is a story about what it means to be a teen artist in an online world.

Through Eliza’s eyes, the reader can see just how valuable online relationships can be to a young person. We live in a world that’s full of scare articles about how dangerous the Internet is for kids, but very few people openly talk about how helpful it can be to someone like Wallace, who’s dealing with trauma and doesn’t feel comfortable talking and interacting in person. Sure, one can lose themselves on the internet; but if you’re reading this lengthy review, I’m pretty sure you agree that the internet can also be a place of belonging for so many of us.

Eliza and Her Monsters also has one of the most beautiful, slow-moving romances I’ve read in a long time.

Wallace is such a sweet character. It’s rare to find a male character who’s both tough and soft, and I loved his story so much. He recently lost his father and lived in a blended family, which is another thing that I want to see more of in YA. Beyond that, the relationship between Eliza and Wallace is sweet and flawed and real. Their slow-motion romance completely fits the two characters: Eliza never interacts and makes friends IRL, but learns to do so through Wallace; Wallace learns to use his voice slowly but surely. Both of them still have a ways to go as characters, which is part of what makes it real.

The main thing I felt was missing was a bigger discussion of mental health.

[Note: mild to moderate spoilers ahead.]

Eliza’s anxiety feels very realistic: she puts an incredible amount of pressure on her art, and added to that is the fact that she begins to feel responsible for Wallace’s future as well. It’s a lot for anyone to deal with, and when her anonymity as an artist is shattered, Eliza finally cracks. Again, this felt incredibly real to me. Sometimes, with a mental illness, you can be going along just fine until something whacks you over the head and makes you feel completely broken.

Yet I wanted to see more in terms of Eliza’s recovery from anxiety. There’s exactly one scene of her in therapy, and while it’s a beautiful scene, I wanted more. Additionally, there’s a scene where Eliza contemplates suicide (in the exact same way as Wallace’s father) and is really only deterred when Wallace himself actually shows up. Setting aside the fact that there’s no way Wallace could’ve known where Eliza was, this terrifying scene is set aside in the narrative and not really addressed as being a truly serious moment. Whether or not Eliza really would’ve committed suicide, the moment feels over-dramatic in part because of how it’s shoved aside; it can be read as teen angst, rather than a serious cry for help.

Overall, though, this is a book I highly recommend.

Once I started reading Eliza and Her Monsters, I could hardly put it down. I was easily sucked into Eliza’s world and that of her web comic. I rooted for her relationship with Wallace and cheered on both of them in their mental health recovery. If you’re looking for realistic anxiety rep, or just something that explores internet relationships, this is definitely one you don’t want to miss.

Find This Book:
Goodreads | AbeBooks | Book Depository


Have you read this book? Do you have a favorite backlist read that you feel deserves more hype? Let me know in the comments. Until next time,

Advertisements

Review | Paperweight by Meg Haston

Note: this is a backlist review from my previous blog. This review contains mild spoilers.

Trigger Warnings: disordered eating, severe depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts

CM+BBLnvSoabTrazcJYScQ17-year-old Stevie is convinced that the only way she can atone for past mistakes is by killing herself on the anniversary of her brother’s death. When her dad checks her into an eating disorder treatment center, the anniversary is 27 days away, so Stevie knows she won’t make it through the full treatment. In fact, in the beginning, she refuses to believe that she needs help—in her mind, the only solution to the pain she’s shoved away inside is for her to die.

Paperweight is not a light-hearted contemporary. It’s the most realistic portrayal of not only anorexia/bulimia, but of pure, self-hating, suicidal depression that I’ve ever encountered.

By immersing the reader inside Stevie’s perspective, alternating the present day treatment center narrative with memories of what led her down this road in the first place, Meg Haston shows how eating disorders are about so much more than food, and adds a mystery element that builds suspense throughout. This is also one of those rare books where not a single sentence is wasted, where the gorgeous language itself is enough to keep you reading.

I’m not usually a fan of the hospital narrative in mental illness books.

They often become a way of dramaticizing or even romanticizing mental illness. Not everyone who’s struggling with depression, eating disorders, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, etc. winds up in a treatment facility. Some folks struggle along on their own—some folks die in that struggle—and other folks don’t have the luxury of a nice facility like the one Stevie has in Paperweight. And yet, two things really made this work for me: the balancing of the present/past narration and the portrayal of the individuals both in therapy and the professionals at Stevie’s treatment center.

the past/present narrative

As the story progresses, Stevie recalls various moments in her life that led her not only to her eating disorder but to her desire to kill herself. Less than two years ago, her mother abandoned the family to move to Paris and start a new life. Stevie blames herself for this loss, believing that if she had just been skinnier, had more self-control over food, her mother wouldn’t have left.

Stevie also believes herself responsible for her brother’s death, which is a big reason she wants to kill herself on the anniversary. She’s never really connected with other girls for reasons she struggles to explain, until she meets Eden, an older, glamorous girl. Eden encourages Stevie’s growing with binge drinking led, which leads to binge eating and purging. Her older brother, Josh, is the only one who notices Stevie losing weight.

All of this not only adds suspense to an otherwise emotionally-driven novel, but it also reveals clues about Stevie’s illness. Controlling food and losing weight are the ways she seeks control and power over her situation, and her brother’s death (which, by the way, is actually an accident and not her fault at all) acts as the catalyst to some serious depression and suicidal thoughts.

Stevie literally wants to starve herself—she wants to disappear, to cease to exist. She desperately wants to take up less space, which is is tied in with her mother’s abandonment. Like many of us with depression, Stevie believes herself to be unworthy of good things, unworthy of life itself. This is self-hatred at its most dangerous, particularly when tied in with her eating disorder.

treatment center realism

In the beginning, Stevie resists her therapist, whom she calls Shrink, but ultimately the two develop a beautiful patient-therapist relationship (something I can’t recall seeing before in this kind of narrative). Rather than crafting the stereotypical overbearing, misunderstanding therapist who spouts cliches, Haston complicates this presentation. “Shrink” aka Anna has a personality of her own, and while she does spout cliches, she ultimately is able to really help Stevie.

Even the other girls in treatment with Stevie have unique characters: they all ended up here for different reasons, from one girl who’s older brother abused her in childhood to another girl who doesn’t even have a big reason that she has an eating disorder. Despite Stevie’s unwillingness to participate in treatment at all, we slowly see her coming around, both through her therapy sessions with Anna, and through her friendship with her roommate, Ashley.

I love the way Haston portrays the recovery process. It’s so easy to write a story about someone who goes from totally suicidal to totally “fixed” by the end of the story. Rather, Haston writes the honest truth about recovery: it’s a long, brutal road, filled with temptations, because eating disorders (and depression) are not something that can be “cured” like the flu. Books like this go a long way toward destigmatizing what it’s really like to live with a mental illness, not just “suffer” from one and then get better.

full disclosure: This book could be very triggering!

particularly if you’re struggling with depression, self-harm/suicidal thoughts, or an eating disorder. Mostly, I recommend this book to folks who’ve never struggled with depression or eating disorders. Read this with an open mind, allow yourself to feel what Stevie feels, and you’ll be a lot closer to understanding what these disorders really do to a person.

fullsizeoutput_2bb5

Have you read Paperweight? What is your favorite book with realistic mental health representation? Let me know your thoughts!