Today’s book review is about a book I genuinely thought I would never read. I am talking about Girl Online.
I have this dream that, secretly, all teenage girls feel exactly like me. And maybe one day, when we realize that we all feel the same, we can all stop pretending we’re something we’re not… But until that day, I’m going to keep it real on this blog and keep it unreal in real life.
Penny has a secret.
Under the alias Girl Online, Penny blogs her hidden feelings about friendship, boys, high school drama, her crazy family, and the panic attacks that have begun to take over her life. When things go from bad to worse, her family whisks her away to New York, where she meets Noah, a gorgeous, guitar-strumming American. Suddenly Penny is falling in love – and capturing every moment of it on her blog.
But Noah has a secret, too, one that threatens to ruin Penny’s cover – and her closest friendship – forever.
Whilst I initially refused to read Girl Online, curiosity eventually got the better of me. It is, unfortunately, the fastest selling debut novel and probably won’t be beaten. When I spotted the paperback in my local library I decided to borrow it and finally read it. If I was going to have an opinion on it, I needed to read it first.
Girl Online follows a young teenage girl called Penny. She lives in Brighton. She likes photography, fairytales and bath bombs. Hmm… She blogs online anonymously under the alias of Girl Online. When an embarrassing incident occurs, her family take her to America (they are wedding planners and have been asked to plan one there) to help her get over it. There she meets Noah, and quickly falls in love. When Noah’s secret is exposed to the world, so is Penny and her blog.
Believe it or not, I did try to go into this book with as open a mind as possible. Children and teenagers all over the world have been inspired to read because of this book, so I was hoping that it did have something to redeem itself from the negative criticism I had previously seen. It didn’t. I have nothing nice to say about it really – the only thing I liked about is that it was quite easy to read and I finished it within a few hours.
In all honesty, Girl Online felt like a clumsy first draft whilst I was reading. I can’t help but feel that it needed some serious editing and rewriting, and then some more. The language, tone and actions of the character seemed outdated. The littering of references like Snapchat and Twitter didn’t mesh with the old fashioned and childish story. The plot itself did not cover any serious, relatable issues. The novel had a fast pace, but this meant that the ending felt rather rushed, although arguably this was the best part of the novel. It had shallow characters with no depth, and I didn’t feel myself liking any of them. The embarrassing incident that occurred wasn’t really that embarrassing. I would imagine for a lot of young people today flashing your old, grey knickers at school isn’t the end of the world. Taking your child out of school to America for a few days “to get over it” seems rather unnecessary and an over the top reaction.
“I had no idea GirlOnline would take off the way it has – I can’t believe I now have 5432 followers, thanks so much! – and the thought of opening up to you all about this is terrifying, but here goes . . .”
Penny’s blog is poor. Come on now; “5432” followers – really? Think about it. 5432…1. Penny also doesn’t seem to blog about anything worth writing about. She mentions that she blogged about falling over and gained 800 followers overnight. Do I need to start blogging about all the embarrassing stuff I’ve done? Is this where we have all been going wrong? In fact, her blog content didn’t seem to be anything that could only be spoken about confidentially. In these modern times, where everyone can have a blog of some sort (Blogspot, Tumblr, even Instagram), or even rant on social media (Twitter, Facebook), why does Penny have to be anonymous? It’ not as if she was being nasty about girls at her school, or discussing serious topics such as nuclear secrets.
Let’s talk about the love aspect of the novel. Instalove, all the instalove! Penny talks about her and Noah being soulmates, after about a week of knowing him. I know you tend to get a bit crazy when you fall in love for the first time, but a week? I’m not sure why Penny and Noah have been lauded as relationship goals as much as they have done. One minute they were shouting at each other that they never wanted to see the other, via text message no less, and then in the next scene they were all over each other. I seriously hope that young girls and boys do NOT take this as something to be aspired to as this is not healthy and this is not what a good relationship looks like.
Here are some other issues I had with the story:
- Penny’s parents let her, a teenage girl, run all over America with a teenage boy she has just met, who is older than Penny, and who they barely know.
- Penny is in school (Year 10/11?) but doesn’t mention exams or studying. The school is also seemingly ok with her taking off to America for days. Surely at Penny’s age, she could have been left with a relative whilst her parents went to America for the wedding so she could focus on her schoolwork.
- Noah, the love interest, is 18 years old. He calls her Princess Autumn, buys her a weird china doll, creates ‘romantic’ picnics where they have a bit of a smooch. In what world would this happen? I don’t mean to be crude but come on.. he is 18 years old and is raging with hormones! Penny would also have those teenage hormones as well. Don’t even get me started on the zero mention of periods.
- Penny has an online presence through her blog yet she doesn’t know who Noah is. Apparently her female best friend fancies him like mad, yet he does not sound or look familiar to Penny at all.
- Penny gets revenge on her mean female best friend by being as equally mean. This could have been a good opportunity to show Penny being the bigger person, and not stooping down to that level, but no – let’s just encourage girl on girl hate!
- Penny’s best friend Elliott, who has some serious attachment issues by the way, resolves the family dispute over his sexuality overnight? One of the issues is that his dad bought him a rugby shirt. Can gay people not enjoy sports? Are they only allowed to like Beyonce and fashion?
- Penny suffer from panic attacks which seem to have been caused by a serious car accident. These attacks are seemingly resolved when Noah comes along. Apart from a breathing technique, there is no mention of any other treatment, such as seeing a professional counsellor or medication.
- How does she have internet all the time? How can she afford UK to USA calling and texting?
- The part about Penny kicking a stone at a dog is not funny. This should not have been included.
If I had wrote Girl Online, I would have had Penny in love with Elliott. She makes a move on him, but he tells her he is in love with someone else. Mortified, she avoids him and goes on a small trip somewhere (that is not America, somewhere realistic!), where she meets Noah. Noah, being a teenage rock star who believes his own hype, is a massive Richard-head to Penny. Penny blogs about it. People find out what Noah is really like from Penny’s blog and Noah’s reputation is ruined. Noah learns to treat people better, but Penny doesn’t want someone like that in her life. It turns out that Elliott is in love with Penny’s brother. Penny accepts this and although her brother has difficulty at first, he overcomes it too. Elliott realises there are more people in the world to like than just Penny’s brother. Elliott and Penny become friends again. And more importantly, PENNY CARES ABOUT HER EDUCATION AND HAS A PERIOD SOMETIME IN THE NOVEL.
See what I have tackled there? Sexuality, friendship, relationships, first love, peer pressure, self esteem, homophobia… I didn’t even need an editorial consultant to come up with that.
I personally feel that there does need to be some responsibility and representation in young adult fiction. It angers me how this book was such an amazing opportunity to tackle some serious issues and instead it simply stuck to tired stereotypes. There was no diversity or difference. From what I could tell, Penny is a clumsy, young girl. She is pale with red hair, freckles… yawn. Her parents are happily married… yawn. Said parents are so quirky and cool… yawn. Her gay best friend loves fashion. Her rock star love interest is moody and has ‘secrets’. Why couldn’t Penny have been a strong independent (teenage) woman who didn’t need a Noah to complete her?
It will be interesting to see what direction the story takes in the sequel. Before you ask, I won’t be buying the book myself! If it arrives in my local library I might read it once again out of curiosity. I think now would be a good time as any to start on my own novel, and spread some positive messages for once! NaNoWriMo anyone?