Fangirl is a 2013 contemporary young adult novel by Rainbow Rowell about coming of age, fiction narratives and dealing with balancing the real world with the world of stories.
I hope Rowell won’t mind me saying that this was an easy read, that was swallowed in about a day and really broke up my recent trend of reading heavier books (both weight-wise and depth). It was a refreshing look at growing up and dealing with change and I liked that it was a coming-of-age novel that wasn’t set in high school, because actually some people do come-of-age afterwards.
Cather and Wren are identical twins (Catherine (!!) which is so great and funny and emphasises the inseparable nature of the twins) who have spent their childhood as one and the same, but when they head off to college Wren begins to distance herself, engaging herself in what might be considered typical freshman behaviour of going out every night and drinking with her cool new roommate.
Meanwhile, Cath is left behind to deal with her own social anxiety and her brash roommate Reagan and Reagan’s overly charming boyfriend Levi, with only her Simon Snow fan fictions to keep her sane. Even her advanced Fiction-Writing Class is becoming an added stress as she struggles to balance her love of fan fiction with her professor’s demands to write original fiction.
I thought the novel was very well-written with some beautiful sentence structures, but I really struggled with the Simon Snow sections. I understand that Simon Snow is inevitably meant to be synonymous with Harry Potter (without even mentioning that it’s a world of wizards and spells and Watford is basically Hogwarts, it goes right down to the author being Gemma T. Leslie – or GTL – or JKR – right??) and the Simon/Baz fan fiction is Harry/Draco slash fiction. But the problem was it was nowhere near as engaging or interesting as Harry Potter, it honestly all felt a little clumsy and desperate to appear as majestic as Harry Potter. So then, you must think that Cather’s world is one where HP doesn’t exist. Except Levi (Reagan’s ‘boyfriend’) mentions Harry Potter directly! The Simon Snow world felt forced to me and I found myself skipping over the sections of Simon extracts or Simon fan fiction extracts that were interspersed in the novel, because they didn’t add anything to the narrative.
I think instead of peppering the novel with pointless Simon Snow extracts that did little to explain how great and important it was supposed to be, Rowell could’ve used those sections to show interactions between Cath and her readers, to show rather than how important Simon Snow was in life, how important Cath was to Simon Snow fan fiction.
I initially found Cather hard to warm to but I think that’s because I identified more with Wren initially and couldn’t sympathise with Cath’s anxieties, which at some points were completely ridiculous – like she can go into a class of strangers and even talk to one of them – Nick -, but couldn’t face the dining hall. I just wanted to shake her and tell her to stop being ridiculous, so I’m glad Reagan did it for me.
However, having said all of that, I actually really enjoyed reading the novel and I think when Rowell focuses on her own writing instead of trying to imitate a fictional author, she writes really beautifully. And when Cath starts to open up she’s got this fierce, snarky wit that makes her a strong character without her sister. I really loved her interaction with Nick at the end (no spoilers) because it showed that she wasn’t a doormat anymore and she could stand strong.
All the characters are so fully developed and distinct from each other that they’re impossible to not like. I found Levi just so wonderfully charming (probably the point) but what I loved was that he didn’t seem perfect to me, like the Augustus Waters Young Adult Prototype (though I know AW isn’t perfect, but you get my point. Maybe Troy Bolton would be a better example). Levi had his own imperfections and awkward moments, and I could feel his smile radiating off the page.
From reading other reviews, it feels like people either love or hate this book. I think I’m in-between. I loved Rowell’s development of characters and her ability to construct some really beautiful images and sentences. I guess I just wanted more from the world, and I think if she was going to write a book about fan fiction, writing about an imaginary fandom that was so close to Harry Potter was a little silly.
The beginning of the novel was so well developed and the climax with Wren/Laura/Art/Levi was great, but the ending needed more: I needed to know how Cather went from being ‘only good at fan fiction’ to having her original fiction in the school magazine, I needed to know how Carry On turned out, and though I think it was answered that Cath finally found balance, I think it just needed to be more explicit.
So it’s a good read, it’s an easy read, and I do recommend it. But let me make it clear that Rainbow Rowell is not John Green (who I consider to be the YA writer to aspire to) and she still has a way to go to get to that level of character and plot depth. But she is a solid writer and this novel is definitely worth reading, if you like books and reading and have had some kind of interaction with any fandom, you’ll like it.
Fangirl is published by Macmillan Children’s Books.