[I wanted to like you. I did. But I don’t.]
Have you ever started a book with great enthusiasm, only to have it take a nosedive halfway through? I’m currently fighting that fight with Guy in Real Life. Along with doubling my Goodreads challenge this year I made another goal: finish every book I start. It’s already biting me in the ass. Fair warning, this entry does contain spoilers, so continue at your own risk.
GIRL and I didn’t start out on the best foot. For reasons I still don’t understand, I thought it was written for an adult audience about college-age characters. Don’t ask me how my brain missed the YA genre label on the spine, because I have no answer. The summary could’ve easily translated to a New Adult novel. As the cover review touted GIRL’s “authentic grit” (whatever that is) and “wholly original” concept, I had high expectations of well-written romance with characters that leapt off the page.
There is excellent YA out there, but Guy in Real Life isn’t it.
I’d hoped that GIRL would give me an idea of what was out there in the world of nerdy romance, as inspiration for The Secret Nerd Project. I looked forward to the story of two nerds who didn’t hate themselves, loathe their natural inclinations or bash others that weren’t part of their clique, and fall in love. Facing relationships and life with a nerdy twist. I wanted Chuck on paper with Sarah as less of a “nerdy wet dream” and more an actual nerd.
That is not what I’ve been shuffling through for the last 230 pages.
Instead of a positive romance centered around self-identifying nerds who are secure in their interests, I’m following two whiny, white teenagers who are the poster children for First World Problems™.
Lesh and Svetlana
To begin our tale we have Lesh, a teenage boy named after a member of the Grateful Dead, even though his parents don’t even show a hint of being former (or current) Dead Heads. The name has no bearing to the plot whatsoever. It only seems to amplify his “specialness”. I wouldn’t mind the name if it actually served a purpose besides setting him apart from the crowd, which he does well enough on his own. He’s also a “metal boy” which, again, serves no purpose beyond making him someone Svetlana can look down upon. This also solidifies him as the trite teenager who sulks in his room and listens to music Daddy doesn’t like, while Mommy tries to get him out of shit.
For bonus joy, the first introduction to Lesh is him puking his guts out in a gutter after drinking underage at a concert. Oh, Prince Charming, is that you? I know kids do stupid things and drink when they’re not supposed to. However, if the only reason you’re featuring underage drinking is to get the MC grounded, make better choices. There’s about a million better ways to ground Lesh, that might have added – you know – character and depth to his situation.
So, I disliked Lesh right from go. Not an auspicious start.
While Lesh annoyed me, he’s got nothing on Svetlana. Initially I liked her, she was the “nerdy one” in this equation and someone I could relate to. Even though her name – Svetlana Allegheny, dear gods these names – made me grind my teeth. Just say she’s of Slavic descent and give me a plausible excuse, okay? Same goes for Lesh Tungsten. (I feel like Brezenoff was staring at the Apple Color palette when he named this kid, and he thought Tungsten sounded moody and badass.) I could even understand her rage upon “meeting” Lesh. Though she took the holier-than-everyone act over the top.
It didn’t take long, though, and I started to loathe her as well. She’s perfect, she’s talented, she’s beautiful. But in a “her hair looked like messy corn silk” kind of way. Because women with fine, messy white-blonde hair couldn’t possibly be attractive. Unless …
Well, would you look at that! And I didn’t even include Blythe Danner or other talented white-blonde beauties like Jewel, Anne Burrell, Scarlett Johansson (on occasion) and that little fashion icon Marilyn Monroe.
Believe it or not, I’ve tried not to hate on GIRL up until now, but this bullshit has tipped over my patience. The fact that one of the first thoughts the male character has about Svetlana is a backhanded compliment just screams Mary Sue. She’s so beautiful, but she’s beautiful in spite of of her long, messy mane of platinum hair.
Fuck off, author. Just fuck off.
She seems obsessed with being a unconventional outsider, and then bitches about it while thumbing her nose at everyone else. She’s every character Zooey Deschanel has ever played (hence the gif) down to the “quirky” label, with a side of baby Michelle Tanner. For added precious. In fact, Svetlana is so good that during chapters in her POV, she takes it upon herself to censor other characters language. That’s not endearing or a character trait, that’s bitchy. Particularly when Brezenoff has no problem letting Lesh and his buddies swear, thus ruling out Svetlana’s habit as an author’s way of getting around a YA censor.
[Svetlana, in a nutshell]
And of course, she has a mysterious illness that isn’t described in actual medical terms until the book is more than 50% complete. Because, thanks to Nicholas Sparks, no teenage love affair is complete without an illness. I’m not saying Nicholas Sparks birthed this horrible “plot point” into existence … but I’m blaming him anyway. John Green also seems to have latched onto this trope (Too Good for This Sinful World) with gusto, which is why I won’t read any of his books. Sparks got his one shot at this with Mandy Moore. If you’re going to use that subplot, you have to attempt to meet the bar that A Walk to Remember set in 2002.
As far as I can see, GIRL doesn’t even try. The poorly calculated “twist” adds very little – if anything – to the plot and it’s extremely hard to even attempt pity for her, when she spends the entire book (aka: what I’ve read so far) being a high and mighty, sanctified, ungrateful bitch. As previously stated, she thinks she’s better than everyone, except perhaps her friend Roan who she frequently treats like a small child to be patted on the head. While simultaneously admiring Roan’s family to the point of idealization, but treating her own family like shit because they want her to go camping, attend sporting events, and other heinous crimes such as blessing them with her beatific presence at the dinner table.
How dare they attempt to communicate their love for her so imperfectly, when what she really wants (read: deserves) is life set in a rerun of Full House, with it’s flawless scripts and stage direction!* Meanwhile she spends a full chapter lusting over having a close family like Roan’s – romanticizing them like a modern day Brady Bunch, even though they are admittedly poor, lacking in space and privacy, and blow electrical fuses on a daily basis – but they’re just so loving and charming and scrappy! Because that isn’t a glaring example of upper-class privilege at all.
Back in the Alleghany Household, Svetlana is so purposefully isolated from her own family (that thing she claims to want, remember?) she has an activity wheel mounted on the wall. Before her wretched family can even ascend her staircase to interrupt all that crafting she’s doing, they must read her handy activity wheel or face her petulant wrath. I find this especially sanctimonious considering she spends the entire book bitching out people for not consulting The Wheel of Destiny, yet she fails – time and again – to write down or even remember plans and promises she’s made with her family.
Pot, meet kettle.
Meanwhile, Svetlana the hypocrite would rather hand-stitch snakes and skulls on her homespun skirt, while sulking in her attic bedroom (I wish I was making this up …), than stand one more unbearable five minute chat with her parents. Apparently she’s so talented that she can’t manage to sew and – I don’t know – catch the latest episode of Switched at Birth** at the same time. Thus satisfying everyone’s desires for 44 minutes (without commercials).
It’s sewing, you are not solving world hunger. Stop it.
But Svetlana seems to think that because she has an Illness That’s Yet to Be Justified As a Plot Device, she should have a free pass to treat her family like trash. Except Henriette who is a cute, tiny fountain of wisdom. Because cuteness wins over building real characters every time. Personally, I would like to shake the shit out of her and inform her she’s not the special snowflake she believes herself to be.
[Disney already beat you to the Special-Tormented-Blonde-Snowflake shtick, honey]
A final note, to the author: if your character doesn’t like being called “Lana” and prefers her full name, then use that. It does not make her more palatable if she spends the entire book bitch-moaning about a nickname she hates. Especially if you never allow her to stand her ground on it, while also having her whiny endlessly about her upper-class, white-girl woes. You’re the author, there’s no reason for this kind of eye-rolling nonsense.
The Lack of Nerdiness
My second biggest issue with GIRL is the author’s approach to all things nerd. Now, before I put my foot in my mouth, let me say that I know absolutely nothing about Brezenoff, beyond that he wrote GIRL. Perhaps he’s nerdy and proud, but it’s not reflected in his work, which is incredibly disappointing. Every time I think I could start to like GIRL, someone has to go and do something stupid.
Rather than being a positive exploration of all things nerd, GIRL feels chock-a-block with stereotypes. Many of which have been flogged to death and no longer have merit with sensible nerds and gamers. If it’s not a creepy male character, Deels, who reads like the cliched mouth breathing, WoW obsessed, woman hating “gamer” that haunts the community. It’s the PC gamers who mock the DnD players, the DnD players who act like they’re on some celestial plane above the PC players. And don’t even mention the console players, they have cooties.
And so on and so forth. For a book that’s centered around a female character who loves DnD and a male character who, though he’s never played before, comes to enjoy both the poor attempts at faking World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons, it spends a hell of a lot of time hating itself. I feel like the entire portrayal of “nerd / gaming culture” was used as gimmick to sell books, rather than to show what it’s really like to be a fan of either game form in this day and age.
Because Gender Identity Issues Are for Lolz
Lastly, there’s the plot that kicks off the book, where Lesh begins playing a female avatar that is never fully addressed. Now, mind you, players aren’t always given a choice in games like Portal, Deus Ex: Human Revolution or (a new favorite) Chariot. Even when I can choose my avatar’s gender, I sometimes still choose opposite.
Why? I’ll use Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect as examples. Bioware, the creator of both DA and ME franchises, did a great job of including both genders (and various sexualities) in their worlds, which is one of the main reasons I enjoy their RPGs so much. In my opinion though Male Hawke is the better voice actor by far – he’s gruffy and vaguely British, which is delightful – and I enjoy the design of default M!Hawke more-so than Lady Hawke. Lastly, there’s something about the romance between M!Hawke and Fenris that’s more compelling to me as a player, particularly in the pseudo-medieval world they inhabit.
It’s all a matter of preference.
On the other side of the coin, when it comes to Mass Effect I play FemShep exclusively, made to look like a version of myself and faithful to mono-gendered Liara from game one to game three. Much of my attachment is thanks to the fabulous acting by both Jennifer Hale (Shepard) and Ali Hills (Liara). I never connected with MaleShep on any level. I tried and found him irritating and cold after hearing Jennifer Hale for hours, and ultimately it was her performance that brought me back to FemShep.
I’ve said all this as preface to: I understand the appeal of playing a character outside my own gender. I have no problem with men having female characters, or women having male characters. However when Lesh picks a character and then models her after a girl he has a crush on, only to then fantasize about said character, while making regular comments about her ass and breasts … strange gets piled on top of strange.
Without knowing anything about the real Svetlana, Lesh creates a fictionalized version (Svvetlana) and traipses around the world much to his delight. To the point where he enjoys being her more than he enjoys being himself. I understand the escapism factor, but he seems to take a higher level of satisfaction from being female than anything else. From how she looks, to how she can act, to how she’s treated by the other (male) teammates in his guild. So much so, that he’s an active participant in a flirty romance with another male player.
This is (also) never addressed, which strikes me as a huge misstep. I skimmed though the last 120 pages or so, and rather than any kind of internal development, Lesh drops the game entirely, hooks up with his real life dream girl, gets creeped out by said guild member like a 1980s PSA skit, and laughs off his whole romp as a female elf with a joke about “not wanting to wear dresses and grow breasts and stuff”.
Because that’s the core of transgenderism, gender identity disorders and cross-dressing. Boobs and frilly dresses. Is it possible to give sarcastic applause over the internet? Because if I could, I’d be giving Guy in Real Life the mother of all golf claps right now.
[Gods bless the 90s …]
I feel like GIRL could’ve been an interesting look at a young man wanting to express more (stereotypical) feminine traits. Juxtaposed with his real life and his gaming life. Not to mention his ability to benefit from a romantic in-game attachment, without any lingering guilt or questions over his identification as a straight man. (If you’re willing to profit from someone’s kindness, flirting and encouraging them to care for you, you’re an asshole.)
Even if he ultimately had no gender identity issues, I would’ve liked to see Lesh actually attempt to work through his attachment and reasoning behind creating Svvetlana. As it stands, GIRL is a nerdy gimmick at best, offering a lot of potential but little character growth. Because “doing it for the lolz” and “boredom” offer no lasting depth to an already shallow story.
Final Notes after Finishing
1) It takes 321 pages for Svetlana to begin to realize the world does not – in fact – revovle around her. Ever after this minor ephinany she still bails on a soccer game with her family. Fine, she doesn’t like her parents (they’re barely formed as characters, more like cardboard cutouts of “rich parents”, so I see her point) but she doesn’t seem to give a flying shit about how her actions hurt Henny. The little sister she claims to adore. For someone who talks about being eighteen and almost an adult, throughout the book she reads more like a bratty fourteen-year-old.
2) I don’t like the fact that Mr. Allegheny’s possible drinking problem is used as something for Lesh to mock him with. Of course the rich man has a drinking problem and secretly longs for his youth, because the only way to justify a rich man’s money, is to make him miserable. I’m all for taking down the patriarchy and shit, but this seems odd. Especially since Lesh clearly envies the money Stevlana’s neighborhood represents, to the point of being ashamed of his father’s blue collar success.
3) “I can’t say it [Svetlana’s name]. It’s not that it’s a secret. It’s more that it’s mine …” (chapter 47; page 328) I’m sorry … what? Less does not own her name and the fact that he takes posession of it, even in his head, is incredibly creepy and gross. I swear to gods, Brezenoff turns her name into a fetish for Lesh and it’s just … we get it. She’s she your sexy-virginal, beautiful but she doesn’t know it so that makes her even hotter (because gods forbid a girl know she’s sexy, like Jelly, then she’s a whore), maniac-pixie-dream-girl. WE GET IT. If all you can base a character’s appeal on is her perfect perfectness (because everyone thinks Svetlana is good-looking and special, even Lesh’s father!) then you need to rewrite her. I feel bad because the author doesn’t seem to be aware he wrote a raging Mary Sue. Someone point him to a litmus test before he writes his next book.
3b) Of course Abraham has a crush on Lana, because Mary Sue. Why not? Everyone thinks she’s beautiful and the sun shines out of her ass. All her teachers think she’s a saint or view her like a beloved pet. The only people who dislike her are her parents (who just don’t understand her magical unicorn status) and Jelly. Who, for all plotting purposes, is the school bike that – as a senior – wants to sleep with a sophomore, and actively threatens Svetlana (another senior …) over him. Someone please explain that logic, because I had some senior aquantiances in high school and none of them wanted to sleep with me.
3c) Wait … does this make Lesh a Gary-Stu? Weird name, check. Poor background yet falls for a rich girl, check. Secretive sensitive metal boy, who somehow manages to catch the eye of not one but two seniors? Check and mate. Just when I thought this couldn’t get any worse …
4) Did we really have to wait until the last ten chapters for every character to become bearable? I don’t expect characters to be likable all the time (or even most of the time) but for the majority of the book, Lesh and Svetlana haven’t even been people I’d want to order coffee from. Let alone hear their every waking thought. I’m also getting sick of books – paticularly YA – that have next to no developmental arch for most of the book, only to cram it all into the last 10-15 chapters. It’s a character arc, damn it, that implies growth over time. Not a dump at the end. The only reason I’ve plowed this far is shear bloody stubbornness. There’s the occasional glimspe of good writing and characterization, but if it weren’t for wanting to mark this book off my reading list, I would’ve dropped it long ago.
5) And now we’ve come to the guild lover turned stalker chapter, and I want to rage. I feel badly for Svetlana, because she is truly the unknowning victim in this subplot, but I did not have an ounce of pity for Lesh. Maybe in the 80s and 90s, maybe up through the 00s I would have been kinder. But this is 2014 you dumb fuck. You stole Svetlana’s identity and used it without her consent or even knowledge to fashion a fictional character. You told strangers where you lived and that you were in high school. You started an online relationship with another person (regardless of gender) in order to profit off of that person’s affection for you. It may be just a game to Lesh (and those like him) but their are still other human beings behind those avatars. That is manipulation and deceit on a very high level. Lesh consciously allowed a romantic relationship to form, and enjoyed engaging in it while also benefiting from what he gained in loot and gear. Now, Svetlana’s going to get hurt and the Internet Werido into Gaming horror story is going to get perpetuated once again, simply because Lesh was a greedy, manipulative dickhead. Way to go, jackass.
I also super love that Lesh isn’t actually worried about Svetlana, the girl he put directly in the path of danger. He’s more worried about getting caught and having to explain what he did. Five more chapters, five more chapters …
6) Really, the most disappointing part about Guy in Real Life is the amount of potential that’s wasted in its 386 pages. Rather than being a book about any kind of personal growth, it boils down to a joke about boobs and dresses, even though Svetlana clearly states that she would still like Lesh if he decided to become a girl. At no point does Lesh talk to his family, or a doctor or anyone about what he’s feeling. Not until the last chapter where DnD and Svetlana’s (incessant) magical abilities tie into a neat bow? The book tries to slap an explain in toward the end about Lesh feeling the world is divided into “boy things” and “girl things” but I’m not buying it. Not when I am a woman who likes video games and action movies, who has nephews that happily wear nail polish and take care of imaginary babies. It would be different of there was any kind of outward “manliness” social pressure, but the only one who comes even close is his scummy “friend” Greg. Otherwise it’s a weird payoff without the proper set up.
Verdict: Shallow and disappointing
Rating: One Star
* I mock Full House out of nothing but loving nostalgia. I’ve been marathoning it for the last week or two, and couldn’t pass on the opportunity to make references.
** Or some other popular family-friendly show. I haven’t watched “family orientated” telly in ages, so please forgive me if I’m off the mark there.