What the cover art should say: Her story is a phenomenon. Her life is a bore.
2017 has been a pretty good year in terms of reading for me. Sure I had to chop my Reading Challenge in half a few months back when I realized I couldn’t possibly finish 100 books by the end of the year but, it had to be done. Quality-wise, I’ve read a lot of great books this year so at least I have that. Which was why I took such a leap of faith when I bought the hardcover for Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia. Statistically, it was bound to be a fairly good book, a 3-star-book at the very least. And what with all the praises I’ve read in its Goodreads page, I was assured a nice, fun read.
I was wrong.
Early on, around the third chapter, I was confused as to why I couldn’t get into the book. I had expected to take an immediate liking to it. The premise was fascinating enough – high school senior Eliza Mirk sidelines as the anonymous creator of the massively popular webcomic, Monstrous Sea – so I was honestly astounded as to why I felt nothing for the book so far. But I soldiered on, hoping that maybe things would pick up after a few more chapters.
Chapter six was the chapter I realized that I was not going to like the book. I remember because I was constantly live-tweeting the book because I had a lot of emotions and no social life whatsoever. I kept of going back to GoodReads and skimming the five- and four-star reviews, baffled as to what others had seen. Could I possibly have been reading the wrong book? Was it at all plausible that the copy I bought, in an insane twist of fate, was the first draft of the book? Or an alternate, obviously inferior version of it? Because, as preposterous as that would have been, it would explain why the book was so dull, so lacking in character, so ludicrously uninteresting, yet had so many glowing reviews. It was insane. I felt like I was being gaslighted. Never had I been so misled by other people’s reviews that I suspected I was going crazy.
(For the record, this is all just my opinion. If you liked the book, awesome. I actually envy you. I didn’t like the book and I can’t pretend otherwise so I’ll rant about it. This is my blog, after all.)
It took me a while to fully comprehend why I didn’t like this book. At first I thought I just couldn’t stand the main character, Eliza Mirk. And I really can’t stand her for a plethora of reasons but… she wasn’t just the problem. After much rumination, it hit me. Eliza and Her Monsters is not a book at all.
Eliza and Her Monsters is a pure wish-fulfillment fantasy. Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s not a story about an eighteen-year-old girl balancing the life of a high school senior and mega-successful comic artist. It’s not a story about struggling to keep up with the demands of your fandom even as anxiety tries to take over. It’s not a story about an artist slowly losing their sense of self as their audience drains their love for their own art. It’s not even a love story between one quiet teen and another. Simply put, this book is wish-fulfillment.
People might say otherwise but I genuinely believe that this book is just that. Now, there’s nothing wrong with wish-fulfillment. Everyone does it in some form or other. However, the story (at least for me) suffered because it was more concerned in fulfilling a certain fantasy than telling an actual, gripping story.
Let’s start with the main problem and also the most damning evidence that this is not a book but an escapist fantasy: the main character, Eliza.
Exhibit A (Cardboard cutouts have more depth than the MC)
Eliza Mirk is quite possibly one of the most bland, unlikable, passive, unempathetic, unimaginative, generic YA heroine I’ve met since I started reading YA books. Apart from her webcomic Monstrous Sea, there is nothing even remotely interesting about Eliza. She has no other interests. No goals. No motivation. One might say that Monstrous Sea is her goal, her motivation. But how? The webcomic is already massively popular. She doesn’t seem to care about improving her style or her story. She already makes money off her comic and her merch (so much that she boasts that she can pay for college on her own… yet she doesn’t seem keen on art school). Plus, she already knows how to end her story. Whatever plans she had for Monstrous Sea, she already achieved them way before the start of the novel.
Despite Eliza’s complete lack of character, drive, motivation, everything is handed to her with little to no effort. Caring and understanding boyfriend? Wallace practically spells out his romantic intentions just as Eliza realizes her feelings for him. Supportive family? After a heated confrontation by her own brothers (because Eliza couldn’t be bothered), her parents learn the error of their ways (i.e. proclaiming their love and pride for their only daughter and her accomplishments in Monstrous Sea). Recognition and fame? Literally in one class, she’s accidentally outed by her parents and almost everyone at school is clamoring to tell her how much they love her work. Hell, Monstrous Sea enjoys a near constant rise in readership regardless of how little Eliza updated when she starts dating Wallace.
Eliza, simply put, is a brat.
Throughout the entire novel, Eliza constantly internally angsts about her parents not understanding her yet snapping at them when they try to get to know her. She seems aware of her foul attitude but also not really as she continues to be a brat. Hell, she never really resolved anything with her parents. Somehow, her parents had more development, though god knows they never did anything wrong. In the end, Eliza’s parents do everything to please her, including letting her not go to school for weeks. At school, she tells us that people hate her because she’s a loner and dresses funny. That isn’t the case as most people (save for two douchey bullies in two scenes) ignore her because, and this is very important, she ignores everybody else. I couldn’t really understand why she griped about school that much and I kind of got the impression that Eliza expected people to kiss the ground she walks on even though she keeps her identity a secret.
Eliza Mirk isn’t a character. She is a blank slate that things happen to. She doesn’t do things on her own. She’s forced to do things that move the plot along. Her middle school brothers confront her parents for her. Her boyfriend Wallace practically guilts her to finish her comic. Her mother forces her to go to therapy for her anxiety which, by the way, she doesn’t seem to have noticed or cared about until then.
Basically, Eliza gets what she wants without working for them, without ever growing as a person, and without ever suffering any lasting consequence.
Exhibit B (Mental health whaaaa?)
Speaking of anxiety, this book did not handle mental health issues well, if it did at all. Eliza very obviously has anxiety yet her parents – total health nuts that are, understandably, worried about their daughter – never thought of sending her to therapy? As someone who has suffered anxiety for most her entire life, I recognized a lot of signs yet Eliza never seemed to think much of it. She never thought it weird that she sweated a lot, shook a lot, couldn’t speak when nervous, or felt claustrophobic around people. This girl, a mother of a fandom, a teen who spends most of her time online, has never considered that maybe, just maybe, her mental health might be a bit off?
It would have made sense if Eliza was in denial of her anxiety – mental health issues are still stigmatized until now – but the way the book handled it seemed more like Eliza just couldn’t be bothered to worry about it. Even at the cusp of a panic attack, she never seems to realize that maybe, just maybe, what she’s experiencing isn’t normal. I’d understand if she was just a kid but Eliza’s eighteen… and a major online lurker. No way she’d never read about the importance of mental health. Tumblr practically regurgitated so much mental health takes that at this point it’s almost entirely puking out garbage. She’s the most unintrospective introvert I’ve ever read about. Though there was probably not much to think about when your character is as blank as Eliza.
And can I just say how predictable and effortless her therapy session was? All of her problems were resolved in one swoop and Eliza just kind of accepted it, barely trying to refute anything. It was laughably hollow and offensively simplistic.
Exhibit C (every artist has a unique creative process but… what the hell?)
Before I get into the impossibility of Monstrous Sea ever gaining enough popularity to financially support the author through college on merchandise sales alone, let me just comment on the weirdness of Eliza’s creative process. In that she has none and that’s weird.
Throughout the book, Eliza tells us that she spends hours working on a page. She locks herself in her room for days to finish her work quota. That’s believable enough. Webcomics take a lot of work after all. What I found strange and outright unrealistic was how very little inspiration and reference material Eliza needs. She doesn’t seem to ever run out of ideas (which is laughable as her webcomic is fantasy sci-fi hybrid and those things are notorious for draining their creators of new, fresh ideas) nor has she ever experienced an art/writer’s block. Seriously, towards the end, Eliza tells us that she doesn’t know how to make anything Monstrous Sea related when she doesn’t want to, when she’s forced to.
Eliza Mirk is one of those fabled, mystical creatures whose creative work entirely subsists on the creator’s never-ending supply of creative juices. Not grit and grind. Screw actually sitting down and getting work done. Eliza needs to be properly motivated, otherwise she can’t and won’t make anything. Even more preposterous is the fact that she has been consistently posting three to four new pages of her webcomic once a week for the past few years. Key word, CONSISTENTLY. As in, her readers literally freak out when she’s late in posting or only posts one page a week. I cannot believe the author would be this clueless as to how much work, how much superhuman dedication and focus it would take for a high school student to churn out such consistent and, in Eliza’s own words, high quality work without ever having to face the dilemma of simply running out of story ideas to work on.
I’m a bit weirded out with what the author is implying here. Does Zappia think that artists should be walking around completely and brazenly motivated all the time, 24/7? That to work otherwise would somehow compromise the quality of your creative output? Because that line of thinking is juvenile, unprofessional, and downright unrealistic. Regardless of how talented you are, how skilled, if your work ethic relies on being motivated to work, you won’t get anything done. No matter how much you love a story, once you actually have to sit down and work on it, it becomes just that, work. And work. Requires. Effort. Effort which Eliza has never had to make since she apparently just shits out content that her loving audience clamor for.
And if you’re thinking that maybe Eliza is some sort of art prodigy that’s just on another level of genius, you’re wrong. Eliza Mirk is an idiot. She has no common sense nor any practical wisdom. Get this, Eliza has so little experience with being unmotivated that she had no idea how to motivate herself. She had to have a therapist tell her to READ BOOKS FOR INSPIRATION. Yeah, this girl had to have another character tell her HOW TO GET INSPIRED. Eliza is not an artist. She’s a content-shitting fairy, an impossibility wrapped in an absurd expectation of how artists and writers operate. Frankly, I’m not even jealous. I’m offended at how easy Eliza makes content-making appears. The technical stuff is easier than the creative stuff in reality.
Which brings us to another matter.
Exhibit D (Eliza is a fuckin’ art robot)
Eliza tells us that she publishes 3-4 pages per week consistently. That is bullshit, plain and simple. She’s a high school SENIOR. Even if she does only the bare minimum work for school, she still wouldn’t have all the time to work on her webcomic. Forget the paneling, line art (which she loves… further proof that she cannot be an actual character as all artists I know utterly despise line work), inking, lettering, and coloring. There’s still the actual story to consider.
Eliza tells us that she just draws whatever comes to mind which, again, bullshit. For a comic especially, artists need to plan their scenes out vividly. Not only to produce a pretty page but to tell the story seamlessly. They need to make the scenes flow… which you can’t do if you’re just drawing whatever with no rhyme or reason. And what about the dialogue? Does Eliza just cram that in after she’s done drawing? As far as I know, Monstrous Sea isn’t some episodic, monster-of-the-week webcomic but a supposedly complex narrative – how Eliza managed to play it by ear is a mystery.
Also, producing so much content at such a consistent rate for several years, I can guarantee that the output’s quality would deteriorate fast. Not to mention the artist’s sanity. You simply can’t produce high quality work that consistently without running out of steam. Especially since Eliza seems to be so enamored in her own world that she refuses to get any inspiration from other people’s work. Is Eliza some sort of art-churning robot? That would explain her lack of empathy and personality.
I won’t touch the story itself because if I list down the number of reasons why Monstrous Sea could never gain as much of a following with such a pretentious, bland, and trivial premise, I’d be here all day. Though I will say that Monstrous Sea reminded of Winx Club, even right down to the art style. I suspect the author was going for a more Neil Gaiman-esque dark fairy tale but couldn’t pull it off. Oftentimes, I got the feeling that Zappia was telling us to just along with it… just pretend that MS is good. But I couldn’t because it doesn’t. Rainbow Rowell’s fiction within a fiction in Fangirl, the Simon Snow series, worked because there were elements in the story that actually piqued my interest. I could see why the characters in Rowell’s book were obsessed with Simon Snow, I could believe the hype, but with Monstrous Sea, not even my love for fantasy could slightly convince me.
Basically: I cannot suspend my disbelief at the very idea that her work would ever stand out even to a niche audience. With thousands and thousands of webcomics posted online for free, Monstrous Sea doesn’t stand a chance.
- The drama is so unconvincing and uninteresting. It’s practically tacked on as an after thought, as if the author remembered at the last minute that there was supposed to be a story so she squeezed it in at the last few pages. Hell, the falling out with Wallace read more like a necessity than an actual event in the story. Of course there’d be a misunderstanding between the two lovebirds. That’s just what happens, right?
- Eliza is pretentious. And no matter how many times she tells us that she isn’t pretentious, that doesn’t exactly stop her from being pretentious.
- How is Eliza the only loner at her school? And why would people think that she’s weird? She dresses funny and doesn’t talk… dear god, there are so much more weird shit actual high school students pull that baggy hoodies and a gloomy attitude are the least strange of all. Though I guess her unfriendly attitude pushes people away. Sure pushed me away…
- In this day and age, it is impossible to remain anonymous on the internet. No way no how could Eliza have gotten away with being the author of MS without someone finding out. For god’s sake, it’s so terrifyingly easy to find things and people on the internet that even with a 14-year-old computer genius friend, Eliza would still have been found the moment she gained a substantial following. I actually kind of expected her to be outed by some Keyboard Warrior/superfan, to be honest. That would have been interesting.
- It is impossible for Eliza to have earned so much money from MS merch that she could afford college if she wanted. For one, college is expensive. For another, merch sales aren’t nearly as lucrative as Eliza makes it seems. If she had advertisers on her page, maybe the views and clicks would have helped but she never mentions that.
- Eliza mentions that she wants to take up art in college but isn’t sure because “there’s no major for drawing Monstrous Sea.” How self-important is this girl to think that her art is in a separate level of its own? How delusional is Eliza to seriously not even look up any other majors because there isn’t one that specifically caters to her freakin’ comic?
- Why did no one mention Homestuck? There was a mention of Harry Potter fans but no Homestuck fans? The webcomic that was an actual phenomenon for years? The actual webcomic that had millions of readers? Is Monstrous Sea supposed to be the Homestuck in that universe? Because that just seems like a sad, sad replacement.
I wish I enjoyed this book the same way thousands of others seemed to but I couldn’t. I know that this whole review turned out to be a rambling, cynical rant but I honestly couldn’t help it. I got so worked up over this book, especially when so many have hyped it. Books are subjective. This one just didn’t do it for me, even if it did for so many people. I still respect the readers who loved this book as well as the author who wrote it.
If you like romance stories about two quiet teens, you’ll probably like this book. But if you want to read about a fandom mother struggling with school and anxiety (with a cute romance to boot), maybe go for a different book. I highly recommend Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.
For this book, one unsatisfied monster out of five.