Title: Fangirl (2013)
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Read: 2nd – 4th February 2018 (original review)
Genre: young-adult; contemporary
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
“Cath is a Simon Snow fan. Okay, everybody is a Simon Snow fan, but for Cath it’s something more. Fandom is life. It’s what got her and her sister, Wren, through losing their mom. It’s what kept them close. And now that she’s starting college, introverted Cath isn’t sure what’s supposed to get her through. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fanfiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone. For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? Writing her own stories? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?” (Synopsis from author’s website)
“And sometimes you held somebody’s hand just to prove that you were still alive, and that another human being was there to testify to that fact.”
I first read Fangirl back in August 2014, then in 2015 I re-read it twice in the space of a year, and here I am at the start of 2018 reading it for what is now the fourth time – it’s every bit as good as I remember from that first reading experience. First and foremost, I should highlight the entire “fangirl” element of the book – Simon Snow, the Harry Potter of the Fangirl world, is a book series which Cath and Wren are fans and for which Cath writes an extremely successful slash-ish fanfiction starring Simon and Baz (aka Harry and Draco). Her writing is so successful online that readers await the next instalment in her story which she hopes to release before the author, Gemma T. Leslie, releases the eighth and final book in the series. Naturally, going to college affects Cath’s writing, and vice versa. On my first reads of Fangirl, this element was what most appealed to my nerdy little fangirl heart but, nowadays, I appreciate a lot more of the depth of this novel. And here’s the thing about Fangirl which I most want to discuss in this review – it seems light and fluffy and, all in all, is a cutesy contemporary but it also deftly deals with genuine issues that face university/college-age people and, most importantly, doesn’t sugarcoat any of those experiences. As someone who had a perfectly lovely time at university in terms of academics, but found the social side of it utterly alienating, I deeply appreciate the earnestness to be found in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.
“In new situations, all the trickiest rules are the ones nobody bothers to explain to you. (And the ones you can’t Google.)”
As a protagonist, Cath feels real, primarily because she doesn’t just have anxiety as a character trait flippantly mentioned as her identifier and then promptly forgotten, she has anxiety and Rowell does not shy away from presenting how this manifests itself in social situations. For example, Cath spends three days only eating her stash of protein bars instead of seeking out the dining hall because she doesn’t know how the dining hall “works” (where it is, where to sit, where to queue) and that scares her. She isn’t just a flat caricature of ‘what social anxiety looks like’, she feels real. We see Cath eventually cajoled into going along to a house party, but Rowell makes it clear throughout that this is something her character finds deeply uncomfortable and alien, and would take time to adjust to the idea of. For me, Cath as a character went a long way to illustrating what I felt (admittedly, in a diluted amount in comparison to Cath) throughout my time at university. Luckily I had understanding flatmates, and Cath too has a roommate in the form of sarcastic and cynical Reagan, a character whose confidence is so completely unlike myself (and Cath) that I find myself loving her because of this very fact.
“Reagan was sitting up at Cath’s desk when Cath woke up.
‘Are you awake?’
‘Have you been watching me sleep?’
‘Yes, Bella. Are you awake?’
With Reagan too comes Levi. Aaah Levi, the book boyfriend of my (not quite) dreams. Able to charm everyone and anyone, he is the extrovert to Cath’s introvert. And, yes, Rainbow Rowell successfully explains the key difference between these using funny dialogue between the couple, explicating a difficult to grasp concept in such a simple fashion and with very little fuss or artifice in the scenario. Despite his megawatt smile and very personable personality, Levi is not perfect, he does and says stupid things, and he’s all the more believable because of them. He also struggles to read books and can I just take a moment in this review to say how refreshing it is for a girl-meets-boy story to allow enough space and time to incorporate this aspect of his character without worrying about any perceived detriment to the overall cutesy story? Because Levi finds it difficult to process words on a page, he has developed coping strategies for required reading – using audiobooks where he can and recording all his lectures to listen back as a studying technique – and this isn’t a throwaway comment, it’s part of his character. Cath observes at various points that he has earbuds in and, once we know why, it helps the reader to understand more of Levi’s character at the same rate that Cath does. It shouldn’t need to be said but it’s also something of a novelty to see a bookish character that doesn’t immediately turn a little bit off a guy because he doesn’t read.
” ‘…you’re nice to everybody. You give away nice like it doesn’t cost you anything.’
Levi laughed. ‘It doesn’t cost me anything. It’s not like smiling at strangers exhausts my overall supply.’
‘Well, it does mine.’ “
Aside from the main trifecta of Cath, Reagan, and Levi, the cast of supporting characters are all wonderfully realised and distinctly drawn. From Nick, the pretty-hipster-but-also-dick in your MFA (not his actual title but he is basically this Twitter account), to Wren, Cath’s extroverted twin sister and other-half wanting to try to forge her own identity on her own, to Professor Piper, the professional writer who doesn’t condone fanfiction because it’s “unoriginal”, to Art, Cath and Wren’s liberal dad who doesn’t have the easiest time when his daughters go off to college. Finding his life displaced as his girls move for school, it’s safe to say that his mental health isn’t the most stable throughout the book, especially given that the bipolar meds he takes to level him out also (paraphrasing his words) dull the spark which he desperately needs for his day-job in advertising. It’s refreshing to see a novel about the college experience that actually bothers to include what’s going on back home with the parents who are left behind, and Fangirl has mined this scenario for some excellently handled plot points with the twins and their father.
“I don’t think I’m any good at this. Boy–girl. Person–person. I don’t trust anybody. Not anybody. And the more that I care about someone, the more sure I am they’re going to get tired of me and take off.”
This very thing is what I respect most about Fangirl and what makes me rate it so highly even if, objectively-speaking, it may not be the book with the most mind-blowing writing or plot. Yes, it has humour (and the dialogue is A+) and it’s extremely readable (it’s 450 pages long and I read it in 2 days), but it also allows its characters facets which Rainbow Rowell could have so easily brushed over quickly because she wanted to get to the juicy bit of the romance storyline. But she didn’t; instead, she lets these other elements sit and grow and I respect this story a hell of a lot more for it. Instead of it being simply a girl-meets-boy story set on a college campus, Fangirl ends up tackling issues such as mental health, bipolar disorder, abandonment issues, social anxiety, learning difficulties, self-esteem, alcohol abuse, and so much more. For me, these are the kinds of issues campus novels ought to tackle alongside the inevitable cutesy romance plot and, if they did, maybe we’d have a few more Fangirls on our bookshelves.
“Real life was something happening in her peripheral vision.”