Thursday, March 5, 2020

Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

I lied. I said this was a book that I was either going to love or hate, that there was no middle ground... and yet here I am, in the middle ground. A lying liar, pants on fire. You see, there were things about ELIZA AND HER MONSTERS that I loved-- and things that I despised. Things that made me literally clench my teeth in fury because I was so irritated at this book and its characters. This is a very frustrating and personal read for me. A lot of times, when I post critical reviews of books like these, I get rude comments saying, "Well, this book wasn't written for you." Not that that invalidates my feelings about the book, but I get where they're coming from (rudeness aside). When you're reading about a specific group and you're not part of that group, you don't truly know what it means to be a part of that group.

My review for ELIZA is about as #ownvoices as it gets. I used to struggle with social phobia, and I'm a content creator with anxiety. When I was in high school and college, I used to serialize my writing online. Part of the reason I have the following I do today is because a lot of my fans doing that followed me over to Goodreads and other social media sites. Like Eliza, I wrote the stories I wanted to read about but couldn't find, and I found a community that I got really active and involved with. I wouldn't presume to say that I'm as popular as she is, but I know what it feels like to have a readership that you have obligations to, and the pressure of creating content in a semi-professional way for consumers.

Like Eliza, all I wanted to do was write. I stayed in my room a lot and just wrote, sometimes for hours. I wanted to write professionally because my self-esteem was terrible and I didn't think I would ever be able to become good at anything else. Also like Eliza, I had a well-meaning family who I treated like absolute shit and villanized because they tried to push me out of my comfort zone, which made me feel threatened and afraid. I lashed out against the people who loved me because I felt like they "just didn't understand"-- but I didn't really make an effort to help them understand. Like Eliza, I just basked in my own sense of imagined injury, and poured myself into my art.

So here's the problem I have with ELIZA, and from what I've read of the other reviews, it's a problem that many people share. The anxiety rep is on point and so is the anger and the unpleasantness. But I never really feel like Eliza is ever called on her bratty behavior and her maladaptive habits. Having a mental health problem is not a free pass from personal accountability. Eliza's parents were at fault for not reaching out to her in a way that Eliza could feel comfortable with, but a lot of that was because Eliza never let herself be approached or made any attempt to get help or healthy or self-care. She used Monstrous Sea like a crutch, and put all her weight on it, so when it inevitably smashed, she came tumbling down because she had no other support systems in place. I could definitely see why Eliza's parents were so frustrated: she had no interest in college, didn't want to find a job, resisted going to the doctor or getting healthy, and balked at all social interactions including her family.

That is not healthy and when a hobby gets to the point that it becomes a crutch, it's time to step back. I stopped writing for a while because I felt like I had let it become an obsession. Now I feel like I've stepped back enough where I can look at it objectively and let myself enjoy it without taking offense to criticism, or feeling like I've poured my soul into it. It's something that I do for fun and enjoy, and that others enjoy as well, but my entire sense of self doesn't hinge on my creations.

There's a line in here that people shouldn't kill themselves for their art. It's spoken by Wallace, the love interest in this book. Which is REALLY FUCKING IRONIC considering what he does to Eliza after she has a mental breakdown. When he finds out someone is willing to pay him for the fanfic that he has written for Eliza's work, he DEMANDS that she finish, even though she is clearly in no psychologically healthy place to do so. SO, okay, apparently people shouldn't "kill themselves for art-- UNLESS it's of personal benefit to fucking WALLACE." Excuse you.

It's a shame, because up until that point, I really liked Wallace... but after that, there was no going back. SPEAKING OF GOING BACK-- what Eliza did to Wallace with that "scare" scene. Was. Fucking. Sickening. Up until that point, I was seething a little about the rep-- but mostly because it hit close to home and was making me think hard about a lot of my own behavior when I was Eliza's age. But after that scene... well, there was no going back. It felt like another scene of mental health being used as a "pass." Oh, I'm sorry I hurt you-- I'm not well. I'm okay now. Are you okay? WE'RE COOL. Like... considering what Wallace told her, that was such a breach of trust. And maybe she did it because he breached her own trust but man-- TOTALLY UNCALLED FOR. Yikes times infinity.

I liked the art scenes in the book but I thought the fantasy blurbs that came with them were wooden and lame. It reminded me of the fic scenes we got in Rainbow Rowell's FANGIRL, another anxiety/fandom rep that I took serious issue with. Eliza is slightly easier to relate to than Cath, who was just a hideous stereotype of every negative assumption people make about people with anxiety, wrapped in wish fulfillment fantasy and tied off with a big ol' bitch bow, but she is certainly no more likable. My favorite moment in this book was when she realizes what a twatwaffle she's been to her brothers after she learns that they have interests!!! and are actually people like her!!!

Jesus Christ, Eliza. How self-centered can you get.

I'm not sure if it's intentional, but I think that self-centered element is another part of anxiety and depression that isn't often talked about but it's hard to focus on others when you feel bad inside. Eliza feels crappy and dwells on that, so she doesn't really think about her family or her friends as having any problems, and the way she used her friends as personal therapists was kind of unhealthy, too. I felt like the book was trying to show that when she texts her friends during her breakdown and they don't write back because they're busy!! having lives!! but this also was never really addressed, and I think it is something that really is important. Healthy relationships where care is reciprocated.

I said more than I meant to say about this book but it made me feel a lot of things pretty strongly. I wouldn't read it again because I feel like the overall message in this book hurts more than it helps, and I kind of hate that Eliza was never taken to task for all the bad things she did and Wallace basically got off scot-free for being a raging shit weasel. The last 20% of the book ruined everything that was cute about their interactions in the first 80% and Eliza's treatment of her family even cast a shadow over that. So, that's my #ownvoices perspective. Not all rep is created equal, so maybe you'll see yourself in her more favorably than I did. But if you're going to tell me that I read the book wrong, or that it wasn't written for me, we can chat later via 1-800-GIRL-BYE at never o' clock.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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