You would think that Eliza Mirk would realize that she has won the lottery. This 18-year-old high school senior has a close-knit and loving family of happily-married parents and two younger brothers. She goes to a decent school in small town Indiana. She is smart and a talented artist looking ahead to college. And she has also penned a runaway success on the Internet: a YA fantasy webcomic called The Monstrous Sea that has won millions of readers, a dedicated worldwide fan base, including fan artists and fan-fiction writers, and has made Eliza, frankly, rich. She can pay her way through college without scholarships or even parental help.
But that's the problem. Because Eliza Mirk is also extremely introverted, clinically anxious, socially awkward, and completely unprepared for the prospect of having ardent fans of her work. Her success has been entirely unexpected and unplanned. Although she knows the value of a good fan base, all she really wanted was to dedicate herself to her art and her story and to have the whole world leave her alone.
So, for the past few years while her webcomic has been getting more and more successful, Eliza Mirk has remained anonymous, relying on her pseudonym "LadyConstellation", rebuffing inquiries from the media and publishing companies. Her schoolmates think of her only as the weird girl to talks to no one. Her parents don't even know how successful she has been with her "hobby". And that's the way she wants it: keep her head down until she graduates, then off to the promised land of college, and more anonymity.
Until, that is, a young man named Wallace enters her life as the new kid at school. And he has problems. A personal tragedy has left him with selective mutism. Though built like a football player, his tendency to curl up into himself leaves him as a target of ridicule and bullying. But he has one outlet open to him: he can write. And when Eliza surprises herself by standing up to two kids taunting Wallace, she and Wallace form a relationship that initially revolves around them writing and handing notes to each other (something that Eliza likens to physical text messaging). Eliza's okay with this initial contact, and it leads to deeper things. As Wallace starts to come out of his shell and actually speak to her, she discovers that he's a fan of Monstrous Sea, and not just any fan, either, but one of its most popular fan-fiction writers.
Does Eliza dare open up that part of herself to Wallace and let him know that she is, in fact, LadyConstellation? Or does she instead try to keep her two identities separate, since what she and Wallace are building is something he is sharing with Eliza Mirk alone. Of course, being human, she picks the unwisest but quite understandable path. And, of course, wacky hijinks ensue.
That's the set-up for Francesca Zappia's funny and heartfelt Eliza and her Monsters which, to my mind, is the best book I've read in the past two years. Zappia is an adept writer, building up not only Eliza's world, but the fictional world that Eliza writes for. Most of the story is told in the first person from Eliza's point of view, but also dips into private message transcripts, and small selections of a transcript being written of the Monstrous Sea web comic (as well as art from said comic). Such changes of style can be annoying, but Zappia makes them work -- largely, I think, because she's adept at conveying characterization and voice both from Eliza and the people that Eliza chats to online.
And it's the characterizations that really sell this book to me. Eliza's standoffishness could have alienated readers, but Zappia manages to make her lead character real and compelling. You really root for her to come out of her shell, and delight as she takes the first stumbling steps towards loving Wallace, even as you know that she's setting herself up to have it all crash down on her head. Her problems with her parents are done in such a way that show her parents to be loving and dedicated (if somewhat oblivious) people. While Eliza shows herself to be unreasonable on occasion, she never becomes unlikeable, and that's quite an accomplishment considering how fraught relationships between teens and parents can become, especially in fiction.
Some readers suggest that the book takes a while to get started, but I had no trouble here. Zappia builds up Eliza's world and lays things down carefully so that no reaction reads false. In many ways, my only disappointment with this book is that it ends, but it has to, and Zappia has picked the right moment to tie up the story and shove the characters on to adulthood. Eliza and her Monsters is a truly moving portrait of young, introverted, artistically-inclined people growing up, and if you love sweet, funny romance that isn't afraid to dive deep, I highly recommend you read it.