Talk about a painfully relatable read. I’m almost glad this wasn’t around when I was a teen, because I’m not sure I could handle reading it then!
Cass is a fat, nerdy queer teenager who is obsessed with a book series and roleplays as one of the characters in an online community. I was a fat nerdy queer teen who was obsessed with a book series and roleplayed in an online community! She’s a chronic overthinker, I’m a chronic overthinker. Needless to say, I cared a lot about Cass and felt protective of her while reading.
Cass has escaped into the world of roleplaying to avoid her parents’ fighting. Then, at the very beginning of the book, her mom sits her down to have a conversation. She met someone online, and she’s moving to be with him and divorcing Cass’s dad. She immediately gets up and drives off to another state. I feel like I was more angry at her than Cass was.
Her mother was the most important person her life, the one who overdoes holidays and ropes her and her dad into a million traditions, the one who was there for her in all her lowest moments. She was a central pillar of Cass’s life—and she just drives off after a five minute conversation. I won’t spoil anything, but she hardly gets in touch with Cass at all after that.
Needless to say, Cass is devastated. So she spends even more time in her roleplay world. She stays up late, ignoring her homework and checking her phone constantly. She’s struggled with gaming addiction before, so she keeps this part of her life from her dad and her IRL friends, because she can’t stand the idea of this being taken away from her.
Some of her best friends are online, and they are a big source of support. One of them is Rowan, who plays the other half of her ship, and they’ve always been there for each other. (Psst, I also roleplayed a gay couple with my best friend as a teen… I told you this was relatable.)
Then, something unexpected happens. Taylor, the girl Cass has had a crush on for the longest time, asks her out. Suddenly, she has a girlfriend. It’s not perfect timing, because Cass is struggling, but she’s not about to turn down this opportunity—even if Cass feels a little awkward with her, especially because she’s hiding both her online life and her family struggles from her.
The chapters are interspersed with roleplay scenes, which might not work for everyone, but was very nostalgic for me, and they nicely complemented what was happening in Cass’s AFK world.
As I mentioned, I felt so protective of Cass. Her and her dad are doing their best to make a new normal at home, so Cass hides how much she’s struggling. Her grades begin to drop, she forgets to apply to universities, and it feels like no one is noticing that she’s in free fall. My heart broke for her, and I understood completely why she felt helpless to reach out, especially as each problem compounded, making her life feel like a house of cards.
It was also nice to read about a main character who is so confident both in being fat and being a lesbian, especially as a teenager. There still aren’t many examples of that in media.
Although obviously I have talked a lot about Cass here, none of the characters felt one note—not even the peripheral ones, like Cass’s best friend’s girlfriend. It would be easy to write Taylor’s character in a way that excuses Cass not totally clicking with her, but she seems great, and I felt for her.
The conflict all comes from people having different perspectives, which are each valid. Cass’s roleplay friends are hurt and angry that she’s hiding them from the people in her life, for instance, which is understandable—even as Cass isn’t ready to have anyone question this part of her life.
While there are a lot of elements to this story, including family as well as romance, it was the friendships that stood out to me, and how seriously they’re taken. They’re often messy and imperfect, but they’re also so important to Cass, and they can be unexpected and beautiful even when they’re messy.
I highly recommend this for nerdy queer teens and those who once were nerdy queer teens—though I’m sure lots of other readers would enjoy it, too.