This book right here? This is why I enjoy reading challenges so much. Without the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book about or involving social media, I probably wouldn’t have heard of How to Disappear by Sharon Huss Roat (HarperTeen, 2017), nor would I have been drawn to it via title alone if I had caught a glimpse of it on the shelf while browsing the library shelves. Its title makes it sound a little on the thriller side of things, but this in-depth examination of the devastation anxiety can wreak upon a teenager’s life and the lengths one goes to in order to work around it and feel seen, is in a category of its own. This novel is brilliancy in book form.
Vicky’s on her own. Her lifelong best friend Jenna, the person she used as a cover and her safety in all social situations, has moved away, and as Jenna shows signs, via text and other online conversations, of moving on, Vicky feels as though she’s been thrown to the wolves. She has no other friends, and her terrible social anxiety has her hiding out in the bathroom rather than attend class (it’s that bad). After she overhears a pocket dial phone call where Jenna calls her pathetic, Vicky uses her Photoshop skills to provide photographic evidence that she’s more than just the sad, terrified girl Jenna used to know. But why stop at just one photo? Soon, Vicky’s ‘shop-ing herself into fantastical situations- riding Buckbeak’s back, attending a Foo Fighters concert in the 90’s, dancing with Ellen on the set of her show. And then her Instagram, which she’s named Vicurious, blows up.
People are connecting to Vicurious in an amazing way. Suddenly, Vicky realizes she’s not the only one who feels alone and afraid; even some of her classmates, who don’t realize that Vicky and Vicurious are one and the same, are commenting on her digitally enhanced photographic creations. For once, Vicky feels seen, and she responds by helping others recognize those around them who are hurting as well. Scary new changes are happening for her socially as well, but it’s when tragedy looms that Vicky will grasp her newfound power of Vicurious to save everything and learn that courage doesn’t mean being fearless.
I. Loved. This. Book. I understood Vicky so well. I didn’t make many friends on my own during high school; I never really hung out with anyone on my own whom I didn’t already know from early, early grade school. Yeah, thanks, anxiety. I’m still garbage at making friends, because I can’t get past the voice in my head telling me how awful I am and how not worthy I am of every new situation, but I’ve at least started pushing myself to try new things despite all of this (and it’s STILL scary!). All that’s to say that Sharon Huss Roat writes the struggle and manifestation of anxiety, both generalized and social, exceptionally well. Vicky’s scenes of sitting in the bathroom rather than go to class, fumbling her way through interactions with other students, and panicking over class projects resonated deeply with me, because they’re still all so very real for me.
Vicky losing her best friend to a cross-country move is painful, and their distancing even more so. Her mother tries hard to push her to become more social, and it’s clear from the start that she doesn’t understand anxiety or how it’s affecting her daughter. Her character is also spot-on; my mother, who wasn’t cursed with a terrified brain, acted in similar ways. They both acted from their own place of (mis)understanding and were doing what they thought was best, however frustrating it was for Vicky and me. Their intentions were good! Lipton, the classmate who becomes Vicky’s love interest, is a million forms of adorable. He misses the mark a few times but is accepting and encouraging only in the way that adorable YA love interests can be, and once again, if you’re looking for a swoony, super-sweet sidestory romance, this subplot is a fantastic reason by itself to pick this book up.
The social media aspects of How to Disappear absolutely shine (and made me want to re-download Instagram again! I had to take it off my phone when I was running out of space). Only hoping that Jenna would notice her Vicurious account and rethink who her best friend is, Vicky uses her Instagram not only to help herself feel better, but to reach out to others, to make them feel seen, to make them feel heard and noticed and not so alone. Not only does she start a revolution of kindness, she does so in a way that’s careful of her own mental health, instinctively stepping away when the pressure builds or when her newfound (yet anonymous) massive popularity becomes overwhelming. Never does she let it go to her head; she always maintains a certain distance and the proper perspective about it, and I think that’s an extremely important message in an era when we’re all constantly checking for likes and new followers.
How to Disappear contains talk of anxiety on almost every page, and there’s a frantic scene towards the end that speculates about another character’s potential suicidal ideation, so be careful if these aren’t things you can handle reading about right now.
But if you’re up for it, How to Disappear is an amazing ode to the difficulties and the painfulness of life with anxiety, what it looks like, what it feels like, and how we can exist and even thrive despite it. Take it from me, who has dealt with anxiety my entire life: this book is the real deal, and Sharon Huss Roat gets it. I definitely feel seen. 🙂