Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Published: 2013, St. Martin's Griffin
Genre: Young Adult Contemporary
Format: Hardcover, 434 pages
Source: Library book
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In new situations, all the trickiest rules are the ones nobody bothers to explain to you. (And the ones you can't Google.)
The Simon Snow series has been a constant fixture in the lives of twin sisters Cath and Wren. Reading the stories, watching the films, and re-imagining the world through fan fiction together has turned Cath and Wren into two of the biggest fans and incredibly popular fan fiction writers. And it's helped them cope with some harsh realities, like their mother's decision to no longer remain a part of their lives.But now Cath and Wren are headed off to college and the carefully constructed lives they've fashioned — held together most prominently by Simon Snow — are slowly starting to crack. Cath doesn't think that heading to college means that anything has to change, not really. She and Wren are attending the same university, after all, and they still have the Simon Snow fandom. Wren, however, looks toward college as a chance to do something else with her life, to be someone different.
At its heart, Fangirl is Cath's coming of age story. It's about her struggle to not only accept, but to actively embrace, the many changes in her life.
I fear I'm a bit of the odd one out when it comes to Fangirl. I was expecting to love this story. I came of age alongside the Harry Potter books and its incredibly widespread fandom. I read quite a bit of Harry Potter fan fiction and dabbled in writing some fan fiction myself. In other words, I thought that I'd get a story like this. That this type of story was something I could relate to on a more personal level. Unfortunately, that wasn't quite the case. While I liked it and I appreciated the story that Rowell had to tell, there were a number of factors that stopped me from loving this book.
For at least the first half of the book, the characters all felt like complete caricatures to me. I get that Cath is really uncomfortable with starting college and breaking routines and all. Really, I do. But through her attempts to avoid human contact at all possible costs, she crosses the divide between merely socially awkward (which I'm sure is more of how Rowell intended she be viewed) to plain dysfunctional. Cath's social anxieties are hard to take seriously at times simply because they're to such an extreme degree.
Similarly, I had a difficult time seeing many of the secondary characters in more than two dimensions. Cath's identical twin sister Wren fits the stereotype of the good girl who parties hard in college in an attempt to forge a new identity and fit in. Once again, I felt as though Wren's character was simply too much. In the span of the summer leading up to college, Wren completely reinvents herself and arrives at school with shorter hair, nightly drunken escapades, and an insipid best friend. I realize that these things do happen, but Wren's freshman year transformation just seems extreme. And for the majority of the novel she treats Cath, her twin sister, confidante, and best friend, horribly.
For a while, readers only know the barest details about any of the people Cath meets in college. That, at least, makes complete sense, as Cath goes out of her way to avoid interactions. And fortunately that is something that improves over time.
One bright spot related to Rowell's characters being near-caricatures is that any transformation they undergo is bound to be an improvement. And Fangirl is all about transformations. Cath's journey to become a writer in her own rights, rather than a purely fan fiction author. Cath's successes and failures in romance. Cath's realization that there are important things in life outside of Simon Snow. Even Wren's realization that the partying life may not be for her. The sisters, particularly Cath, encounter many pitfalls along the rocky road of freshman year.
While readers are treated to bits of the canon Simon Snow stories and also pieces of Cath's (and sometimes Wren's) Simon Snow fan fiction, for the most part these scenes are little more than fillers between Cath's story. Simon Snow has a constant presence throughout the book, but it lacks... heart? I get that Cath loves the Simon Snow stories, for literary and personal reasons. But I'm not sure I ever truly understood her love of the fan fiction community. And clearly Cath isn't writing for purely personal reasons, as the book makes mention of her many followers and of her sense of obligation to finish her own version of the eighth Simon Snow book before the canon version releases during the following summer.
Part of what makes massive fandoms so much fun to be a part of is the community. And besides a few mentions here and there (Wren betaing Cath's stories, a brief discussion with a fan of Magicath's "Carry On Simon," and a few sessions where Cath read her stories aloud to Levi), the fandom felt strangely distant. Perhaps that's part of the point. A major part of the story is about Cath's efforts to hold on to her past life at the expense of her new one, and the challenges that creates. One thing I will add, though, is I really enjoyed the role it plays within Cath and Wren's relationship.
I realize I've primarily listed the problems I had with the novel. That's not to say that I found Fangirl to be a waste of time or a terrible novel, however. Rowell writes well, and I appreciated the novel's distinct quirkiness. And, really, the idea to write a novel that taps into the unique subculture surrounding fandom was long overdue. The overarching theme of finding one's individuality (through writing and literature in this case) is also very well done. Ultimately I do believe that this story is worth reading simply to experience Cath's increase in confidence, in her relationships, in her writing, in herself.
Rating: 3 stars