Book Review: Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

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Strap in, y’all. I can already tell this is going to be a long one.

I recently finished reading Eliza and Her Monsters, a contemporary YA novel by Francesca Zappia. Eliza and Her Monsters centers on the titular character of Eliza. Online, Eliza is LadyConstellation, the creator of the famous webcomic Monstrous Seas, with millions of fans who not only read her work, but also buy her work, share her work, and even get tattoos of her work. But in “real life”—offline—Eliza is an anxious, introverted high school student who makes it her mission to fade into the background and live her life unnoticed. But then Eliza meets Wallace, the new guy at school, and not only is he a huge fan of Monstrous Seas who writes fanfiction, but he’s also creating a novelization of the comic. As she falls for Wallace, Eliza’s usual hide inside and work on the comic routine is thrown into turmoil. She finds herself presented with scenarios she has never faced before—in terms of socializing, friendships, and relationships. But perhaps most of all, Wallace doesn’t know Eliza is the famed LadyConstellation, and she can only keep it a secret for so long.

I was drawn to Eliza and Her Monsters by a few main points. First, the idea of living another life online, or feeling like your entire existence is based online, seemed extremely relatable. I also really wanted to read this book for its portrayal of a character who is introverted and deals with anxiety. Plus, those two points sounded very similar to one of my other favorite YA novels, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, and I can’t even count how many reviews I read/watched/heard that expounded that fans of Fangirl would love Eliza and her Monsters.

And I’m inclined to agree.

Both Eliza and Cath (the main protagonist of Fangirl), share their creative works online and find themselves more popular and more comfortable in the realm of the Internet than in their regular, everyday lives, which is something that not only do I find relatable, but I think a lot of people out there can. Many of us find ourselves living behind a screen, especially when we do share something online, be it our stories, our photos, or even just a carefully curated version of our real lives. Finding it easier to relate to people online is another aspect of the online life that I think many of us can relate to, and Zappia takes advantage of several opportunities to let her main character express this perfectly several times throughout the book.

“The story is at once very easy and very hard to explain,” she says in regards to Monstrous Seas. “I’ve never tried to do it in person, but I imagine if I did, I would end up vomiting on someone’s shoes. Explaining something online is as simple as pasting a link and saying, ‘Here, read this.’ They click. Read the intro page. If they like it, they keep reading. If not, oh well, at least I didn’t have to talk.”

It’s like she crawled inside my brain and plucked this thought from my very consciousness. I knew right away, Eliza was my type of person. Not only could I see a lot of my current self in her, but I could also see a lot of my younger self in this character. Her arguments with her parents, trying to explain why she is on the computer so much, and how her friends are online friends, felt like an all-too-familiar conversation for someone like me, who has a stepdad who says things like, “I don’t know why people are always sitting on that stupid computer!” (An expression which never fails to bring to mind an image of someone placing their laptop on the ground and then firmly planting their butt on top of it, I might add.) In a day and age where our lives are becoming even more saturated with technology, these arguments are becoming even more prevalent between young adults and parents—and we’re going to have to find a middle ground at some point.

Even if you are not someone who conducts their life almost entirely online, you may find Eliza and Her Monsters a relatable read if you’re a writer or an artist of any kind. I found a lot of her behaviors and observations resonated with me, from her tendency to lose herself in her work, like when she gets so determined to post a certain number of pages every day and so absorbed in creating them that she doesn’t realize it’s Christmas Day, or her inner war with herself when she finds it difficult to draw. I think many artists can identify with her reasons to create her webcomic as well. “I made Monstrous Sea because it’s the story I wanted. I wanted a story like it, and I couldn’t find one, so I created it myself.” This particular point of view made me think Eliza must be listening to the sage advice of Toni Morrison, whose famous quote reads, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Additionally, the observations made by Eliza’s favorite author, Olivia Kane, rang all too true, and bounced around in my brain for days after finishing the book. “Creating art is a lonely task,” she writes. “Which is why we introverts revel in it.” She goes on to share some advice with Eliza that seems valuable. “If you want the motivation back, you must feed it. Feed it everything. Books, television, movies, paintings, stage plays, real-life experience.” And then, possibly one of my new favorite quotes on the writing experience: “Sometimes feeding simply means working through non-motivation, working even when you hate it.”

I think anyone who is a writer—or an artist of any sort—definitely knows that feeling.

me, trying to work on a bad day

But perhaps the most admirable and relatable aspect of Zappia’s most recent novel is the accurate portrayal of Eliza’s anxiety, which was a lot of the reason I found myself able to identify with Eliza so easily. The way she experiences and talks about her anxiety was very familiar to me. As an introvert, she finds comfort in being at home, working on her art, and hanging out with her dog—and I was like, SAME, Eliza. Same.

But this is life, and life sometimes requires us to be social, and hearing Eliza’s thoughts and observations about this necessity of life made me feel a lot less alone. At times, her descriptions of her anxiety were wryly humorous and at others, they were so true they hurt—and sometimes they were both. One of the best images is the way she portrays her self-doubt:

“There is a small monster in my brain that controls my doubt. The doubt itself is a stupid thing, without sense or feeling, blind and straining at the end of a chain. The monster, though, is smart. It’s always watching, and when I am completely sure of myself, it unchains the doubt and lets it run wild. Even when I know it’s coming, I can’t stop it.”

This monster, in particular, is one I have, too—it’s like a little goblin that lies dormant in my brain until it’s time to attend a public event or evaluate my own writing, when it jumps awake and asks me just what the hell it is I think I’m doing.

Watching Eliza talk herself into attending a social event, I had to laugh at how closely her thought process reflected my own. “It doesn’t sound completely terrible,” she tells herself. “And I’m sure if I don’t like it, I can find some excuse to leave.” And, “…There comes a point in a girl’s life where she reaches a crossroads: a night alone with her sweatpants and her favorite television show, or a party with real, live breathing people.”

Eliza only reconfirmed that she was a kindred spirit when she was actually out at the social event, describing what it was like for her when she’s anxious. “People are too much sometimes,” she says at one point when she needs to take a moment to breathe. “Friends, acquaintances, enemies, strangers. It doesn’t matter; they all crowd. Even if they’re all the way across the room, they crowd.”

This was the perfect way to put anxious thoughts while out in public into words, and so, so true. If you ever struggle with anxiety or have trouble being around people, this need to take a moment to breathe, or feeling of being overwhelmed around other humans, felt like a piece of my own heart put on paper. I knew Eliza would understand how I feel when I’m overwhelmed at big social events and get accused of looking like I’m “bored out of my mind” or, my personal favorite, “like a bitch.”

Overall, I really, really have to commend Zappia for creating such an identifiable character, in whom so many of her readers can likely find at least a fraction of themselves, if not their whole hearts.

There are only two things I didn’t like in this book, one of which is small, and one of which is tiny.

Let’s start with the tiny one. The tiny one that bugged me is how oblivious Eliza seemed sometimes. The reason I’m classifying this as tiny is because not only is Eliza a teenager, a time in all our lives when I think we can admit we are pretty concerned with ourselves, but I can also see how she could be oblivious to some things. For example, her thinking that her brothers hate her or being oblivious to anything about their lives. On one hand, I wanted to shake her and say, are you crazy?! These kids are badasses! They went to bat for her with her parents and spoke up for her at a time when she was too afraid to speak for herself, and they were the only people in her family who followed her webcomic and kept her secret. Sure, they’re smelly and weird sometimes, but they’re teenage boys. What do you expect? But all in all, there are people who would kill to have brothers like Church and Sully.

I tried not to get too mad at Eliza, though, because I know firsthand that sometimes when you’re dealing with anxiety or your own mental health struggles, it can be easy to lose track of what is going on around you, or just get wrapped up in your own “stuff”. So even though it bothered me somewhat, I could kind of see how she would be like that.

The other small thing that bothered me (and possible spoilers ahead) was how the character of Wallace straight up pissed. Me. Off. I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but he made me so mad with how he treated Eliza when he found out her secret and how he treated her anxiety when she was having trouble finishing her comic. I know Wallace is going through his own things, and has had a lot of trouble in his life; I also get that he was upset that Eliza wasn’t completely honest with him, even though of all people I thought that he would understand. But I don’t think either of those things justified the way he treated her when he came over and told her how angry he was and pressured her to finish the comic because he needed it for his novelization so that he could get it published and not have to work a job he hated. UGH. I get what he is saying—that he had a huge opportunity and he really wanted to be able to support himself through writing so that he didn’t have to be miserable for the rest of his life at a terrible job. TRUST ME I GET IT. I mean, that’s the dream, right?

But to treat your own girlfriend in such a shitty way because you need her to do something for you…just UGH. I could not get behind his behavior. He was completely disregarding what she was going through and how bad her anxiety was and telling her to force herself to do something she didn’t want to do because it would be good for him. Just typing that felt awful. I felt so bad for Eliza, because of course, she internalized that, guilt-tripped the hell out of herself, and it made her anxiety worse. Again, I say: UGH.

I was glad that Wallace eventually removed his head from his ass and came around, but even after he finally came around, it was much harder for me to like his character once he’d behaved that way.

I was also really glad Eliza ended up going to therapy and her therapist sounded like an extremely smart woman (though nameless and faceless, I might add—this was a really interesting chapter consisting solely of untagged lines of dialogue between Eliza and the therapist; no descriptions, no other words at all. And it worked. Despite being different from the rest of the book, it worked really well. It was an excellent creative choice for that particular spot in the book). Some of the advice the therapist shares can, in my opinion, be extremely important for many writers and artists to hear…but still really hard to remind ourselves of:

“Your worth as a person is not dependent on the art you create or what other people think of it,” she says. “The state of your fandom shouldn’t dictate your self-worth.”

So. Important.

But I also completely understood where Eliza where was coming from when she asked her therapist, if that’s not what my self-worth is based on, then what is it based on? I think it’s really easy as a writer or artist to fall into that pattern of thinking.

Despite the two little hiccups that bothered me the slightest bit, I loved this book. I’m definitely able to get past those two tiny negatives when there is so much positive portrayal and representation of mental illness, such a relatable main character, and so many impactful moments. If I were giving a star rating, I’d definitely give a five out of five, and I’d definitely recommend this book to other readers! Seriously. Go get it. You will love it.

What do y’all think? Has anyone else read Eliza and Her Monsters? What were your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below! You know I’d love to talk. <3

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