October 3, 2013

Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

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
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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.


  1. Aww, I'm sorry you had so many issues with this one. I think, as someone heading out to college next year, I understood the wide range of emotions felt by these characters. It IS caricature-like, but I think their growth in the novel made it really work for me. Have you read Attachements? It's my favorite Rowell novel, so maybe you'll have better luck with that one. Great review, Amanda - I'm glad you still managed to enjoy this read.

    1. I thought I'd be able to understand their emotions as someone who recently graduated college. But just...they didn't ring true to me. I wish that they had, though! I am very disappointed I didn't love this story.
      And yeah I think I'll try Rowell as an adult author next. Attachments, or perhaps I'll wait and read Landline.
      Thank you, Keertana!

  2. Nice review. It's funny I didn't really think of the characters as caricatures when I read it, but I can totally see your point about Cath- I mean she wouldn't even go to the dining hall and was going to eat in her room for as long as possible! So yeah can see that... Reagan was sort of a cliched "tough" girl too, even though I liked her character.

    1. Thanks! Yeah I mean I didn't hate any of the characters. But I do think the constant mention of fiction made me think more critically as to the depictions of these fictional characters. Or something along those lines.

  3. I actually didn't think Cath's social anxieties were too extreme - mostly because I could relate to it so well. But I do agree that Wren's character fulfilled too much of a stereotypical role, though it didn't bother me quite as much at the time. I also felt that the Simon Snow stories lacked heart. I hate to admit it, but I resorted to skimming them after a while, as I was far more interested in the actual tale than Simon and Baz. Overall, though, I had fun with this book and liked Cath and Levi's relationship. Even though you had a few problems with it, I'm glad it was a decent read for you too. Great review, Amanda! :)

    1. I made myself read all the Simon Snow parts, but upon reflection I do think that I would have gotten just as much out of the story without those fan fiction snippets. I didn't really mention Cath and Levi's relationship here in my review, but it was pretty cute. So there was that positive haha. Thank you, Sam!

  4. Aw I'm sorry you didn't enjoy certain aspects of this one! I just finished it last night, and I mostly loved it but I totally do understand what you don't like about it. I felt a little disconnected from the story in the beginning, but I was able to get into after a few chapters and ended up loving it for the most part. I do agree on the Simon Snow element lacking a bit of heart. I felt the same way about that part, which was frustrating since it was a crucial element to the book. Anyway, really great articulation of what didn't work for you.

    Like Keertana, Attachments is definitely my favorite Rowell book. I would highly recommend that one if you haven't already read it!

    1. Yes, and I can also understand why so many people are loving this one. Just for some reason I can't count myself among them. Thank you, Hannah!
      And I certainly will keep Attachments in mind as a future adult fiction read. :)

  5. Great review! I love it! I think we were really feeling quite similar about this book. I hated Wren's stereotypical college student crap, it was so annoying.

    Oh, and did Cath seemed like she was only finishing Carry On, Simon because she had fans, not because she REALLY wanted to, which was disappointing!

    I totally skipped all the parts with the LONG, fanfiction passages. I did not care about it. I just wanted to get back to the real story.

    Again, great review! Great minds think alike! HAHA

    1. Thanks, Nancy! It was "stereotypical college student crap," but to the EXTREME. I had trouble stomaching it at points. Not only did Cath seem like she was only writing for her fans, but we readers didn't even get to share her satisfaction of completing it. That bothered me quite a bit. I know she was supposed to have moved it, but wouldn't it have been sweeter for her to say goodbye to it all by finishing the fic? Maybe she did, but it wasn't mentioned in the story. And haha yes. :)

  6. Sorry you didn't fully connect to this one. What I appreciated most is that Cath grows at college although she doesn't turn into someone else. You're right that it takes a long time to know other characters - the pacing is slow at the beginning. For me, the Simon Snow part took a back seat to the rest of Cath's story, perhaps because it wasn't my favorite either. But I understand your points about not portraying the wonder of the online fan community. Or at least she talks about it, but we don't see it clearly. Very thoughtful review, Amanda.

    1. That is a good point, Lauren. It is a pretty realistic portrayal of growth, considering Cath's starting point and all. I think I was bothered somewhat because I can tell that Rowell has talent, but it just wasn't working for me personally. And thank you!


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