‘Girl Online’ (Girl Online #1) by Zoe Sugg

*This review will contain spoilers!*

I’m always very quick to judge things. That’s part of the point of reviewing: I’m able to judge things, write words about them and share those words with you guys, and it happens quite speedily. However, sometimes I judge things that I haven’t experienced for myself. I’m sure we’re all guilty for it – you might judge a country that you haven’t been to, or a person that you haven’t met, or a food that sounds disgusting. 
If you’d told me a year ago that I would have willingly read ‘Girl Online’, I would have laughed maniacally into your face. I really dislike the whole Youtuber world takeover that is going on at the moment (make-up lines, and cameos in ‘South Park’, and radio shows on mainstream channels, and on and on and on) so I’ve endeavoured to avoid it as well as possible. That definitely includes Zoella, whose Youtube videos I have attempted to watch and have constantly grumbled and moaned at throughout – I just don’t think they’re good or worthwhile, and while I respect the fact that she’s made an entire career off of being a human girl it just isn’t that intellectually stimulating or inspiring.
But I decided to put the author to one side of my head (and yes, I know, Zoe didn’t technically write this novel because it was written by ghostwriters, but let’s not even go into that debacle…) and judge the novel as a piece of writing – judge it as though it was written by someone I’d never heard of before.
So it surprises me, more than you can ever imagine, that I actually ended up kind of enjoying this book. It’s definitely not a literary masterpiece – in fact, it’s unbearably average, overly stereotypical and extremely predictable – but I ended up having fun and I didn’t hate it as much as I’d expected that I would.
‘Girl Online’ is the story of Penny, who anonymously runs a blog called Girl Online. Penny is all you would expect from a YA protagonist in a stereotypical contemporary novel: she’s white with red hair and freckles, she has an anxiety problem, and she has an indescribable affinity for making a fool out of herself. She’s unlucky in love, unpopular at school, and she only has one real friend – Elliot, who lives next door and is (of course!) gay. 
The book is kinda – sorta – focusing upon Penny and her panic attacks. She has them rather frequently towards the start of the novel, making it a major plot point for the first one hundred pages. I didn’t find the portrayal of panic attacks too believable, as I know people who have panic attacks and have had a few myself, and I’ve never found a solution for them being as easy as visualising a superhero alter ego – solutions for these things aren’t universal, though, so I’d be interested to see if anyone did find this to be a good helper. They also seem to be quite neglected through the second half of the novel, as soon as Penny meets her boyfriend, which is irritating – it’s almost as though you can’t have a difficult mental condition and a romantic relationship, like the two are mutually exclusive. 
Penny has the worst case of anxiety when she gets asked to take a cast photograph at the end of the school play. She’s nervous about going up on stage in front of all of those people, but it’s one of her duties as the designer. Penny makes a huge fool out of herself, tripping over and flashing her underwear to the audience. Luckily, this happens just before her family is due to go to New York to plan a Christmas wedding, so she doesn’t need to go back to school until the incident has blown over. What a fabulous coincidence!
In another remarkable coincidence, as soon as Penny, Elliot and her parents (leaving the most realistic character, her big brother Tom, at home with his girlfriend) arrive in New York, it happens to be the first day that they’ve gotten snow this winter! How remarkably magical! Wow! As you can tell, my contempt for some aspects of the novel is very thinly veiled, and includes much eye rolling.
Anyway, Penny’s in New York, and she happens to stumble across a guy called Noah playing a guitar, and because she suffers from such debilitating anxiety and constantly makes a fool of herself in public, she thinks it’ll be fine to go with him to explore Brooklyn. This leads to her having a panic attack, and the guy manages to calm her down – as soon as this happens, she’s pretty much convinced that they’re soulmates, as she can feel them clicking together. Oh, the insta-love is strong in this one!
Penny and Noah have a nice couple of days, but her family is due to fly back to Brighton on Christmas Eve, so she spends a lot of time bemoaning the fact of her existence and the unfairness of it all. A higher power is at work here (known as a convenient plot twist!) and Penny’s family get invited to stay in New York until New Year so that they can help organise a birthday party. Of course! However, Elliot isn’t allowed to stay, because his parents are regular, ordinary folks – I mean, would you let your son go swanning off with the neighbours over the holidays?! – and he flies back by himself. Penny doesn’t really mind, because she has a boyfriend now.
The insta-love keeps getting worse. Noah writes Penny a cute little love song, and despite the fact that she can tell he’s hiding something from her she keeps running around New York with him and ignoring the bad feeling. They’re convinced that they’ll keep in touch and meet up soon after she returns to UK, because apparently flight costs are nothing to this eighteen year old, because they are each others “inciting incidents” and are the start of something new. 
Then, shock horror! Penny returns home and she discovers that Noah is a world famous rock star and he’s going out with the Leah Brown – a pop star with the worst name of all time, who seems to be about as famous as Beyonce in this reality. I don’t know about you, but because I run this blog and I’m constantly online, I don’t think I could miss a development like this, so it’s all a little too convenient. 
Penny is angry, so she tells Noah never to contact her again. Then, when she goes online, she finds out that her secret identity has been leaked all over the internet. She knows who must have done this – Elliot, because he’s so angry with her. Yeah, she can’t think of anyone else so she just blames her best friend, which is a little bit of a shitty thing to do. Of course, everything gets sorted out in the end, because Penny and Elliot work out that it was Megan and Ollie (Mega-Bitch and The Walking Selfie… Groan) who leaked the news, and they exact their revenge by pouring milkshakes over them in a cafe. Really, really nice. A great example to all of the teenage girls reading this book who might be dealing with bullies and sour people. 
At the very end of the novel, Penny is taking gloomy photos of Brighton, dwelling on how horribly her life has turned in the last week, when GASP – Noah turns up! Because plane tickets are no trouble at all for a eighteen year old rock star signed to Sony! They kiss and make-up, leaving it at the perfect happy ending for the unnecessary second novel that has just been released, ‘Girl Online On Tour’. 
In all honesty, I really enjoyed the middle of the novel, because it was all much too melodramatic at the start and at the end. Penny’s slow motion fall on stage is one of the most unconvincing scenes I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing. Her reaction to Noah having a “girlfriend” is also over-the-top – if you think you’ve met your soulmate, you don’t then kick them out of your life without asking for an explanation or trying to ask why. I hated the fact that she blamed Elliot for leaking her secret identity to the news, because she’s very high and mighty about it, claiming that she hadn’t done anything to upset him so he was in the wrong. In fact, if someone made me fly back from New York alone, then asked me to leave her house so she could text her boyfriend the day that she got back… I would not be a very happy bunny. 
I also would have preferred the novel without the insane amount of insta-love. It normally makes me roll my eyes, but when you think you only have two days to get to know someone you really shouldn’t go getting googly-eyed that easily. I know, I know, it was romantic, they were meant to be! But really? Gross. 
Overall though, I’m glad I finished this novel. A lot of the reviews I’ve been reading have said that they DNF’d at 50 or 60 pages, and while I didn’t think this was mind-blowing it was nice to have a bit of something silly to read. I think the problem with most people is the contrived tension – will Penny go to New York or won’t she?! when we know that she does because the blurb gives away the first one hundred and fifty pages… 
It almost felt like a Jacqueline Wilson book, with the simplistic writing styles and the overt stereotypes – nothing against Jacqueline Wilson, but she isn’t shelved in the Young Adult section, and I don’t think ‘Girl Online’ should have been either. I know it will sell to all of Zoella’s teenage fans, but I think as a literary effort it would definitely appeal more to a younger crowd. I know that thirteen year old Alyce would have probably adored this book, but I was definitely lukewarm over it.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m going to read the second one. At nearly 400 pages they’re actually very fast to read, and I do like silly contemporaries to brighten up the chilly winter days. Expect the review of that one… Eventually?