Look, we all have our comfort books—the ones that lift you up when you’re feeling down, help you escape when you need an out, the comfortable world that feels made just for you. Like soaking in a warm bath, a comfort read settles the mind in ways some media just can’t. We all have that childhood favorite, the book that helped us through a period of angst, or a new favorite. As I’ve discovered, though, some things are best left to nostalgia.
Gamer Girl by Mari Mancusi was a huge comfort read of my teen years. I related to the protagonist who felt like the world was against her, and so many of her interests were my own. It was easy enough to insert myself in the world when Maddy seemed like a person I would want to be friends with, or reminded me of myself. One of my reading goals for 2021 was to revisit an old favorite and I chose this one to jump back into. I have fond memories, and it was one of the first books that I genuinely cried out of empathy to. As an adult, however, so many of the shiny aspects that had once attracted me to the book felt dull with age.
The novel follows Maddy Starr as she deals with an abrupt shift in living circumstances and social life after her parent’s divorce. Now living in her grandmother’s unicorn-infested home, she feels isolated from her friends, can’t relate to the “prep” veneer of her new high school, and shifts between blame and rough understanding of why her mother left her father. Luckily, she’s gifted a MMORPG game called Fields of Fantasy for her birthday and escapes into her character, Allora. While gaming, she meets another player, Sir Leo, and the two form a connection. Between the manga she’s drawing and the game she’s playing, Maddy spends much of the novel escaping her reality, but when it all comes together will she finally get over her angst and achieve a happy ending?
The first thing I noticed about the book as I reread was how badly it’s aged. Published in 2008, it has all the tell-tale signs of its time period and, yet, it feels like a fantasy told through stereotypes that don’t exist today, or maybe never did. Maddy is your average 2008 alternative-emo-goth girl: she loves My Chemical Romance, enjoys manga and anime, wears pretty much all black, and is envious of her friend with pink hair. Plus The Angst. I literally could have described myself at the same time. And so much of the plot hinges on the associated shame of enjoying manga, comics, or things that don’t go with Abercrombie. Little did Mancusi know how much 2008’s Iron Man and the following Marvel Cinematic Universe would change the geek world as it was known. Now, if someone says they read comics or love anime, it doesn’t carry the same weight as it does in Gamer Girl’s world.
The book is full of stereotypes and tropes, but, at the same time, Maddy still feels relatable and worthy of empathy. In the past, I was more invested in the high school and gaming-romance plotlines, but, as an adult, I was intrigued by how Mancusi tackles a sixteen-year old handling her parent’s messy divorce. A lot of Maddy’s angst is well-deserved, but it also felt like a perspective that I still haven’t read much of. She veers between the usual selfish teen desires and empathy for her mother’s situation. The moments where she cares about her family worked, but were often overshadowed by The Angst she felt everywhere else. Additionally, the change and development of her relationship with her father, given the distance, was a nice aspect of character that worked with and against how she treated her other family members. In many ways, I think this is a good example of a character who is taking out so many of her internal issues on the world around her, but it constantly comes back to bite her in the ass.
I still think the format of switching between prose and the online chats is a lot of fun, and many of Maddy/Allora’s adventures in the game are entertaining enough. The game-as-an-escape angle has been done, but the spin here—of an online romance with a “stranger”—works fine. The trouble is that Sir Leo’s identity is blatantly obvious and one of those perfect coincidences of fiction. Plus, let’s face it, since 2008 the idea of connecting with strangers online doesn’t have the same mystique it once did (thanks Tinder). That said, the development of their relationship is cute and is often reflective of the way you can develop feelings for a person you’ve never met.
The characters and plot may be stereotypical and the epilogue best left on the cutting room floor, but the book still has some kind of appeal (especially if you’re an Elder Emo like myself). The pop culture references automatically date the book, but make the world feel more fleshed out. I like to think Maddy would be mystified by what Hot Topic has become. If this book is a marker of how far geek culture has come in thirteen years then it only shows progress. Comics, online gaming, anime, and alternative culture have become more accepted and somewhat standard. It’s easier than ever to be a gamer girl today.
So do I still recommend this book? It didn’t comfort in the ways it used to—its magic has faded—but there is always an audience for something like this. People who enjoy World of Warcraft or Elder Scrolls might get a kick out of Mancusi’s take on the MMORPG genre. Anyone who wants to remember or experience life as “the weird kid” in 2008 could easily find the high school special version here. And for those kids of divorce who came out a little bitter and misunderstood, there’s plenty of angst to relate to. So find a copy and login to the misadventures of Maddy.