GoodReads rating: 3.81
Watching her on Youtube, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I found her incredibly relatable. I’ve always felt like I have so many things in common with her. We’re the same age, we both have younger brothers who have incredibly similar personalities and we grew up with those terrible 90s neck chokers. So when the book was available, I immediately bought it off of BookDepository.com.
Before the book reached my doorstep, there was this whole news about how it was ghostwritten by above Siobhan Curham (this is a post she made in regards to the issue that you might want to read to clear the air on the false assumptions the media has made), a popular young adult writer who Zoe acknowledges at the end of her book. Penguin also confirmed that not all of the book was written by her. Hearing this news, I was torn. I was very torn because I, myself, yearn to one day be a writer and I wonder how it would feel like if I were ghostwriting and the book I wrote became a bestseller but the credit was never justifiably given to me and the words that I had written. At the same time, I felt indignant that online platforms – even Times news (why are you covering this?) – seemed to completely side-sweep the publisher, Penguin, and instead target Zoe – who they probably never heard of until this issue arose.
I had two responses when I heard this news. The short-term and immediate reaction was that I felt myself regretting having bought the book. I felt almost guilty. But then, maybe after a second-thought, I realised that because of all that was happening in regards to the issues of ghostwriting, I felt that it was even more necessary and relevant that I should read the novel.
Hence, the moment the hefty parcel reached my hands, just two days ago, I ripped it open and began digesting it. To avoid crediting where credit may not be due, I will address the novel itself instead of the author(s). I will, also, attempt to write as honestly as possible to how I felt about this novel – honest to both camps: those who love it and love Zoe and vehemently support and root for her, and those who are incredibly skeptical of the writing and believe that the story itself is garbage (which I believe it is not).
The first few chapters of Girl Online, and my first impression of it, was that it was palatable and the writing was decent. The character development was also pretty decent. The overall tone was quirky and easy to read.
I could tell that Penny, a sixteen-year-old student living in Brighton, aimed to be a girl with whom readers are immediately meant to identify with. She felt awkward, she was clumsy and shy and felt inadequate, and really wanted the approval of friends and family and boys.
Penny’s homosexual best friend, Elliot, was also someone with whom Zoe’s target readers should immediately love. When I read of him, I was immediately picturing Tyler Oakley in my head. And I wonder if that was intentional. I appreciated the random fun facts in the book and I honestly wish there had been more of that. I also wished there had been more exploration into who Elliot was as an individual and that he had not spent 80% of the novel hiding behind a mask of stereotypical “diva-fashionista-awesomeness” and comedic fluff.
Personally, I was still on board with the story, that is, till the point Penny and her family flew off to New York. The beginning story (without spoiling anything) attempted to tackle issues that I felt are close to any young person’s heart: bullying (esp. cyber-bullying), anonymity and problematic friendships.
It was in New York that the plot of the novel took a swift nosedive for me. It was FanFiction-esque: delusional and superficial. And I shall explain why I used these two negative adjectives as criticism. Maybe it is because I’m not the “hopeless romantic” type, and some (lovelorn teenagers) may disagree with what I am about to say next, but Penny and Noah’s love is a carbon copy of what many fangirls must envision in their heads when they picture themselves falling in love with their favourite boy band musician – regardless of whether they come from 1D or 5SOS. If anything, the romance between Penny and Noah is actually completely unnecessary for the primary message of the novel: that your words and actions can hurt, that you should think twice before saying them, and that no matter what, if things go terribly wrong, you should still love yourself and know that your family will support you.
So, for me, the Penny and Noah story in the middle of the novel was like the wrong stuffing in a roasted Christmas chicken dinner. Noah was in every way a stock character of the ideal rocker boy. His actions to romance Penny were the most cliched and at-the-top-of-your-head gestures that any boy could attempt to perform if they were willing to devote so much money and time for a girl. His little sister was every cliched angelically adorable attempt to make readers fall in love with her. There was little real about the family – including (dare I say it) the accident of Noah’s parents.
Getting that out of the way, there are moments where Girl Online does shine and communicates its message unexpectedly well. I won’t be ashamed to say that I teared up at some moments in the story – especially since many of the moments seem to parallel the reactions Zoe immediately got after the online communities and media platforms realised that her novel was ghostwritten.
The first time I teared was (and I specifically remember) on page 87. Shall not spoil here, but those who have the book or are reading it should know which part particularly, regarding cyber-bullying. It was an early moment and I believe that a previous incident that happened to me in the past triggered my empathy towards Penny at that particular moment. In today’s day and age, I also believe that this moment should affect a lot of other readers. It is kind of sad how many young people are affected by cyber-bullying, whether it be hateful messages online, “unglam” photos of them posted by people who do not like them, or being ostracised by a group of classmates on the internet.
The later “feels” occurred towards the end of the book around page 288-289. I have a soft spot for characters who are misunderstood or attacked by other individuals. So this part got to me.
I believe the message of the novel was strongest when aspects of who Zoe is as a person shone through. It is apparent that she had a clear role in creating this novel through certain minutiae: the line in which Christmas was her favourite time of the year, the father who is great at homey meals, the Margherita pizza and room service and the bath bombs – and many other things I can’t quite recall at the moment.
Lastly, I feel like I shouldn’t give my overall rating of this book, mostly because I am so torn as to what I should give it. In terms of plot and how it is written, it is comparable to those I read on FictionPress.com. Honestly, if I came across it on FictionPress.com, I would be happy to have found a decently written albeit cheesy plot for a story.
If there is anything you should treat this story as, in terms of story progression, it is a bag of chips – or cookies. It’s probably not good for you, but you want to eat it cause every so often you feel that biting into that chip makes you feel better and more satisfied as a human being. But, in all honesty, when you come out of finishing it, you have to admit to yourself that it probably was a whole bunch of No Good.
But, I can see where it is written from, and that there are good intentions in it and the issues that it attempts to address are still there. I believe that it could have been better if it focused more on those issues and less on romance. Those moments that I previously mentioned were the moments that shined for me and that were the most heartfelt.
Regardless of how wishy-washy the writing process of this novel was, I am still proud of Zoe for how she managed this novel and the criticisms that followed. It is honestly the most beautiful covered book I own at the moment – except maybe my new signed copy of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. And I love how it looks on my bookshelf. So, at the end of the day, I have no regrets buying it. It was honestly the perfect light-hearted read I needed for Christmas.
And, in regard to the entire issue of how the book was ghostwritten and how some have gone up in arms about it, I quote this part of the novel:
I sit on the edge of my bed, staring at my phone in terror. I picture people all over the world reading about me, posting hate-filled messages about me. People I don’t know. People who’ve never even met me.
This was written in the perspective of Penny – but I also believe that it is written very much so in the perspective of Zoe now. I don’t know why, but I feel incredibly protective of her as a person. I can’t imagine what she might be feeling or going through, but I feel that contempt is never justified if you are not personally involved in the situation. I feel like there are many times that we have been prematurely judged by others, and some times where we are unaware that we prematurely judge in return. I guess, the only suggestion I wish to make (not just for others out there but also as a reflection of my own) is to be more sensitive with words and how they may affect others. It’s easy to type blankly into a screen. It is harder to empathise and understand who you are communicating to and the effect your words may have on others.
(I believe that my last paragraph there is an attempt to not only summarise the message of the book but also the irony of the situation in relation to the book and the issues arising from the book in its entirety.)
Lastly, on a more positive (and less convoluted) note: this is the 25th book I’ve read for this year – which means that I completed my goal to read 25 books this year! And I’m so proud of myself now for having been able to accomplish this in light of how busy this year has been. 😀
Also, maybe as a post-postscript (P.P.S), I hope you don’t mind that I posted a Saturday’s Inklings on a Sunday/Monday (depending on your time zone) – and that I wrote it at 2am in the morning for me, which probably explains why this review is not as organised as I probably want it to be.
But I felt it was necessary to get all these words out before I forget them.
Till next time,