Book Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Fangirl is so adorable, I didn’t know whether to read it or hug it.
This sweet, funny, charming novel tells the story of Cath Avery, a college freshman who just isn’t quite ready to leave her childhood comforts and touchstones behind. Cath is a twin, and she and sister Wren have been inseparable their entire lives… until Wren abruptly informs Cath that she wants them to live apart in college, try something new and meet new people. Cath is devastated. She has no interest in making friends and meeting new people; she and Wren have lived together for eighteen years — why stop now?
On top of that, their dad is not the most stable of guys, tending toward the manic end of the bipolar spectrum without someone around to make sure he’s eating, sleeping, and generally keeping it together. Ever since their mother left, just after 9/11 when the girls were eight years old, Cath and Wren have kept their dad on an even keel, and Cath is terrified that he’ll lose it without them around every day.
Now that she’s lost Wren as a roommate and built-in best friend, one of the unwelcome adjustments required in Cath’s new college life is her brash and irritable roommate Reagan, who seems to be constantly shadowed by her best friend Levi, a sunny older boy who is just always around… and who somehow manages to work his way into Cath’s reluctant heart.
The biggest change of all is the impact of college life on the twins’ obsession with Simon Snow. In the world of Fangirl, Simon Snow is the fictional main character of a series of books set in a magical world. Think Harry Potter, with a few twists. Simon Snow is simply the biggest thing ever, with a huge fanbase that’s getting crazier and crazier as the publication of the 8th and final book in the series approaches. Cath and Wren have always loved Simon Snow and are immersed in the world of fanfiction — or at least they were. Wren seems to have left it all behind in her quest to grow up and be a “normal” college girl, with all the drinking, partying, and boyfriends that entails, while Cath wants nothing more than to live in her Simon Snow “fic” world for as long as she can.
Cath isn’t just a regular old fan, though — she’s the incredibly popular author of Carry On, Simon, which has become the hottest fanfic in the Snow-verse. Each new installment by “Magicath” gets tens of thousands of hits, and Cath can think of nothing better than spending hours writing about Simon and the boy-on-boy romance she’s created for him with his archnemesis Baz.
Fangirl follows Cath through her first year of college, through the ups and downs of her relationship with Wren, her worries about her dad, her growing romance with Levi, and her struggles to define herself as a writer, both in the world of Simon Snow and in the context of her advanced fiction writing course — presided over by a professor who just doesn’t “get” fanfiction and won’t allow it in her students’ writing.
This is the third book I’ve read by Rainbow Rowell, and once again I’m just incredibly impressed by her talent. In Fangirl, she’s created not one but two fictional worlds. The story of Cath and her growth and development at college is convincing and feels authentic, and at the same time, Rainbow Rowell has created a fiction-within-fiction world for the story of Simon Snow that makes it feel like a real, well-thought out book series. Actually, I suppose you could say that there are three worlds going on in Fangirl, because I don’t see how you couldn’t count Cath’s fanfiction creation as a story all its own. By the end of Fangirl, I wanted to know not only how Cath’s life would work out, but both versions of Simon Snow’s as well!
Cath’s inner life is well-described throughout. She’s scared and reclusive, yearning for connection but afraid of it too, wanting to write but not willing to leave her fanfic behind or relegate it to 2nd place. I loved Cath’s insecurities and fears, her love for her father, her anger toward Wren even while she misses her sister desperately. Perhaps most charming of all is Cath’s friendship with Levi. Levi is the boy everyone wishes they met in college. He’s sweet and smart, caring without being controlling, always there for Cath when she needs him, and funny and positive to boot. I loved that Cath and Levi could explore their feelings, not without complications or issues, but at least without the trite contrivance of an unnecessary love triangle. In fact, I thought early on that the plot was setting up a triangle, and when that didn’t turn out to be the case, I felt like raising a banner with a big “THANK YOU RAINBOW ROWELL” on it. What a relief!
Rowell’s writing is full of sparkling humor and zippy dialogue. Even when serious matters are arise, there are plenty of funny and quirky moments to lighten the mood. I love this moment, among many, which uses a pop-culture reference point as almost a throw-away quip, yet really sets a great tone (and made me snicker):
Reagan was sitting at Cath’s desk when Cath woke up.
“Are you awake?”
“Have you been watching me sleep?”
“Yes, Bella. Are you awake?”
Probably my only quibble with Fangirl has to do with names. Cath is short for Cather, and it took me the longest time to realize that yes, Cather is in fact her name and not a nickname. The explanation for Cath’s name (and Wren’s too) was just too cutesy by far for me to believe, and felt like a forced joke that didn’t work at all in the context of an otherwise totally believable (if not terribly functional) family dynamic. This is a small complaint, however, and certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of Fangirl for more than a moment or two.
Overall, I loved Fangirl. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, which took my breath away with the sorrow and hurt of its characters. In Fangirl, Cath goes through quite a lot, but it’s mostly a happy book about a young woman coming into her own, finding out who she is and what she wants, and learning how to be her own person. Cath’s experiences during her freshman year of college include unique elements, yet feel universal. For anyone who has suffered through meeting strange new roommates, figured out to maneuver through a dorm dining hall, or confronted a professor who just doesn’t get your work, reading Fangirl will be a nostalgic, emotional journey back to those days of excitement and confusion.
Filled with strong writing and original, well-developed characters, Fangirl is a joy to read — and it’s sure to especially delight readers who, no matter their age, still get a secret thrill from flipping back through their Harry Potter collection… again and again and again.
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: 2013
Genre: Young adult/New adult