Book Review: Fangirl
I read Rainbow Rowell's slam-dunk YA book, Eleanor and Park, after hearing it recommended on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour Podcast, and absolutely loved it. It was one of the best books I read in 2014. The story of two comic book high school nerds in the 1980s who fall in love over Watchmen and Joy Division, it was sweet, funny and heart-wrenching all at the same time.
So of course I was eager to pick up more of Rowell's work, and recently settled on her later 2013 follow-up, Fangirl. Fangirl has a lot in common with Eleanor and Park: they're both love stories, they're both about outsiders, and they're both rich in both character and dialogue. But Fangirl didn't quite win me over in the same way.
Which isn't to say it's not good, and that there isn't a lot worth taking away. Fangirl centers on Cather Avery, a freshmen at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As anyone who has ever been in that stage of life knows, it's no cakewalk. It's even less so for Cath, who is a naturally shy homebody, more comfortable in her pajamas at ten p.m. than out at a frat party. She's already going into college with a bit of a chip on her shoulder - her twin sister, Wren, has declined to room with her, citing a desire to be independent that Cath doesn't share.
Cath is also a devoted writer of fanfiction, getting upwards of ten thousand hits a day on her magnum opus fic, Carry On, Simon. Cath's franchise of choice is the Simon Snow series, a series of books about a magical wizard who goes away to a boarding school for wizards, lives with a roommate and has a destiny to defeat the biggest threat that wizardkind has seen in quite some time. When Cath begins college, the eighth and final story in the Simon Snow series is due out at the end of the year, and Cath is worried that her version of the final installment won't be finished in time. She sees it as her life's work, but entering college brings with it all sorts of new distractions and worries: navigating a relationship with her roommate Reagan, a tough upperclassmen; Cath's hurt over her treatment by Wren; a fiction writing professor that doesn't see the merit in writing in fanfiction, equating it to plagiarism; and above all, the confusing and lingering affections of Levi, Reagan's ex-boyfriend who keeps hanging around their room and seems to be really into Cath, if she could only figure out her own feelings for him in return.
Fangirl is above all a romance, which is obviously where Rowell feels the most comfortable. But it's also a window into a first college experience, the kind that isn't filled with booze-fueled nights and parties like you see in the movies and on TV, but a young woman's very real reckoning with suddenly being on her own in a strange new place that she is not sure she likes. Rowell excels at writing well-developed, complex characters and writing dialogue that is both realistic, humanizing and hilarious all at once. I found myself feeling empathy for Cath right from the start, even though, as an inward-looking, fanfic-obsessed young woman, she is about the farthest from me one can imagine. I also appreciated the window into the world of fanfiction, a world that my sister in particular has always been a part of, but one that I confess I never really understood until now. But Rowell, through Cath, helped me see fanfiction in a new light, as a way to celebrate someone else's creation and make sure that something you love "never really ends."
Except ultimately, what pulled me out of Fangirl was ironically Cath's fanfiction. If Simon Snow reminds you of a real-world franchise, that's certainly no mistake. Harry Potter has 746,000 fanfiction stories on fanfiction.net, absurdly dwarfing the next most-popular series, Twilight, by over 500,000. Each chapter of Fangirl cleverly inserts a sample of a Simon Snow story, either by the series' fictional "real" author, Gemma T. Leslie, or a piece of Cath's fanfiction. Rowell expertly switches between the two voices, as in the canon version of the series, Simon and his roommate, Basil, are bitter enemies, while Cath writes them as lovers.
But I couldn't help but feel that Simon Snow was just a sub-standard Harry Potter stand-in, and the similarities between the two characters and their worlds were so striking that I wished Rowell could have just said what she really wanted to. But that would have obviously been a licensing nightmare, so I wish that Rowell had at least created a fictional world-within-in-a-world that didn't so closely resemble something we already had. It's an unfortunate distraction in an otherwise great book. But don't let that stop you, because as Cath comes into her own as a person and a writer (in a somewhat predictable way), you can't help but think back to your own college experiences, whatever they were, and feel some semblance of empathy.
And at the end of the day, whether fan-driven or not, what else is fiction for?