‘ ‘That generation.’ The generation who are always on their phones… using them to communicate, to game, to connect, and yes, to learn too.’
‘Where Is Noah Flynn?’
The title of Penny’s first blog post poses the question we all ask for the first half of the book. Noah has disappeared off of the face of the earth, dropping off tour to take a ‘creative break’ and refusing to contact anyone – including Penny, his sister Bella and his grandma Sadie Lee.
A couple of months have passed since the events of ‘Girl Online: On Tour‘, and Penny and Noah are still over. She still loves him, but Elliot tells her it’s time to move on. It doesn’t seem like Noah will be coming back for a while.
Over summer, Megan moved to London to attend the Madame Laplage School, a fancy school for creative types, and when she invites Penny to visit she accepts. She recently had an internship with the biggest photographer in the world – Francois-Pierre Nouveau – which involved her travelling to London by herself daily, so going to see her friend is no big deal for her anxiety.
When she gets to Megan’s school, she sees that Megan hasn’t settled in as well as her Facebook updates say. The popular girls are dismissive and rude to her and she’s only the understudy in ‘West Side Story’. Posey, the girl who has the lead role, suffers terribly with stage fright. Megan’s certain that it’s only a matter of time before she can step into the spotlight and take the role that she thinks is rightfully hers, so she’s already been telling everyone she’s the lead.
Penny meets Posey and they become fast friends, and Penny’s soon determined to help her. Struggling with anxiety herself, she knows how debilitating it is, and when she hears Posey sing she knows she’s born to be on stage. She arranges a day for Posey to meet pop star Leah Brown, one of her idols, because she also suffers from stage fright.
Megan finds out and is angry, thinking Penny’s trying to confine Megan to the understudy role by giving Posey the confidence to perform, but she calms down when Penny says she can meet Leah too. Leah gives Posey advice to help her deal with her nerves, then plays the group some of her new songs.
A few weeks later, Leah phones Penny extremely distressed. One of her songs has been leaked, and it must have been recorded when Penny, Posey and Megan visited. Penny and Megan can’t remember hearing the song, so all fingers point at Posey. She denies being involved, but Penny doesn’t believe her. Why did she trust someone she’d only known for a few weeks?
As well as dealing with this, Penny needs to deal with a new boy on the scene. Callum’s a photographer, and they quickly bond while geeking out about lenses and aperture speeds. She has so much in common with him compared to Noah, and she curses her heart for not feeling more towards him and his swoon-worthy Scottish accent.
Penny’s mum and Noah’s grandmother are still working together to organise weddings, and during the upcoming half term they have a huge event at a castle in Scotland. Penny mentions it to Callum and he’s overjoyed: that’s his cousins wedding! Him and Penny will be able to spend lots of time getting to know each other better.
But Penny doesn’t really want that, and it’s soon obvious to her that she doesn’t have feelings for Callum. With Noah still off the scene and her burgeoning romance quickly crashing and burning, it looks like our Girl Online might end up Going Solo after all…
Zoe Sugg has hit her stride with this third novel.
My complaint about the two previous installments were that they were too childish, the language hinting that this was aimed at children rather than teenagers or young adults. ‘Going Solo’ has a much more authentic teenage voice, even though all of the characters still seem overly innocent (with the exception of Noah, whose spiral into alcoholism was his reason for leaving the tour and going off the grid).
Yes, Noah (eventually) comes back. He takes his time, not appearing until halfway through the novel, so the plot isn’t half-assed: it’s not like we find out he’s missing and he’s back within a couple of chapters! It gives us time to get to know – and dislike – Callum, and it gives Penny a chance to explore the potential for another relationship, something most teenagers will have to deal with.
When Noah does reappear, they don’t get back together instantly. Penny has a very mature view of their relationship:
‘I know we can’t rush into a relationship again. All the same issues that drove us apart in the first place – our careers, his game and, most of all, the distance – are the same as they were. Nothing has changed on that front.’
I think it’s very important to teach teenagers and young adults that you can’t brush all of your problems under the carpet just because you love someone and they make you happy. You need to deal with the problems, no matter how difficult that might be. It’s not until Penny finds out that Noah’s bought a flat in Brighton, making the effort to move to be closer to her, that she relents and allows their relationship to recommence.
This book was cheesy and filled with convenient coincidences, but they weren’t overly groan-inducing: in fact, I found myself having a lot of fun while reading this because it’s very light-hearted. Scotland being so small that the only Scottish person Penny knew was related to the bride at the wedding was ridiculous, but once I overlooked the unlikeliness I could appreciate how it was the last thing Penny wanted: she hadn’t wanted him to be there at all! Noah walking in as soon as Penny and Callum were having their first dance was a melodramatic moment ripped straight from a rom-com, but it made their reunion even cuter.
It was obvious that Megan leaked Leah’s song, and the fact that Penny didn’t even consider that Megan could have left recording equipment running when she went to the bathroom was annoying. I was glad her and Posey reconciled at the end and it was good to see Megan knocked down a peg or too, but I also felt sorry for her: her and Penny had been friends for years, and she’d never invited her to meet Leah Brown before!
Zoe’s voice was more pronounced towards the end of the book. Penny works on a photography exhibition featuring teenagers on their phones, and reflects:
‘All around me are photographs of teens – kids, like me – who lives their lives as much online as off. And while some people might bemoan wasted youth or wonder why we aren’t outside getting fresh air, I hope my photos offer a different perspective.’
Having been referred to as the voice of a generation, it’s obvious that Zoe would want to defend people who are constantly connected, and this moment definitely feels like her speaking rather than Penny. It was done cleverly, particularly in the scene where there’s an elderly lady complaining about kids being on their phones at an art gallery, while they were all researching the paintings to find out more information about them. It’s a good reminder to stop judging people for using their phones, because you never know what they might be doing with them.
The only thing that made me feel uncomfortable about this novel was the character of Posey Chang. Based off of Posey’s surname I’d assume she’s Chinese, but her ethnicity is never directly addressed. If you’re trying to add diversity to a book that primarily features white characters, it might be worth doing this in a less covert way.
There’s also been a lot of discussion in the YA community recently about the fact that using the description ‘almond-shaped eyes’ can be seen as racist. This discussion was focused on ‘The Continent’, an upcoming US release that was so extremely controversial that it’s release was pushed back to allow the problem to be dealt with, but that’s why it startled me to see it used in this novel. Why has the use been so vocally protested in one case, but hasn’t been mentioned at all in relation to this novel?
Compared to the first two books, I really liked this one. I’d hoped that the second book was the end to the series, but I’m glad that it wasn’t, because this third novel does nearly everything right.
Yes, there are some obvious plot twists and some super cliche moments, but everything’s good in moderation, and the happy ending made my heart melt.
Penny’s anxiety is a more focal point in this book instead of being relegated to the background, and the advice sprinkled throughout the book will help teenagers who struggle with anxiety and stress-related conditions. There’s not much ‘Going Solo’, having her jump from Noah to Callum to Noah, but there’s more of a focus on friendships and helping people, so the romance is the subplot for once.
I don’t know if there are going to be any more books in the series, or if this is going to be the final book in a trilogy, but I’m actually looking forward to seeing if Zoe writes anything else in the future. Now that she’s less reliant on a ghostwriter and seems to be taking control of these books into her own hands, they’re getting much stronger and feel like they’re finally being written for the audience they’re aimed at.