“Real life was something happening in her peripheral vision.”
So I’ve had this review open and up on my computer now for days (weeks, really, since I finished the book almost a month ago now), and I just keep staring at that blank cursor, trying to figure out how to convey all these FEELINGS I am FEELING about this book.
The short of it? I loved this book, and Rainbow Rowell, miraculously, has produced not one, not two, but THREE books that I hands down LOVED this year. And not loved, like that was fun and I enjoyed it, loved like, oh man, this book stared into my soul.
The long of it? Well, that’s what I’ve been having trouble with.
“What the fuck is the fandom?”
Fangirl is Cath’s story, and in many ways it’s a very personal one. Cath is going away to college for the first time, and she’s not very happy about it. Her identical twin sister, Wren, doesn’t want to be roommates and has begun to pull away from Cath, cutting off all her hair, and for the most part, abandoning the Simon Snow fandom she and Cath had been such a huge part of for so long. Simon Snow is basically like Harry Potter in Cath’s/Rowell’s world. The whole world is obsessed with him, and no one possibly more than Cath. She takes refuge in Simon Snow when worrying about her bipolar father becomes too much, when her social anxiety gets the best of her, when she feels Wren pulling even farther away from her. And Cath has fans of her own. Her fanfic, “Carry On, Simon,” gets thousands of hits per day, and almost no one in her “real” life understands her obsession with Simon and his vampire roommate Baz (who in Cath’s world are also secretly in love with one another — so on top of being a fic writer, she’s also a slash fic writer, which puts her even more on the fringes).
Cath’s specific eccentricities aren’t ones I necessarily share, but they’re rooted in a place that feels very familiar to me. Her fear of change, her desire to lose herself in fictional worlds, her inability to connect with other people without quite a bit of effort, her fear of her dorm’s cafeteria (which is just a manifestation of the hard time she has adapting to new habits and places). But most of all, how her love of Simon Snow and the fandom she participates so actively in acts both as a refuge from the outside world, and something that further separates her from it. The ‘normals’ in her life do not understand at all what it is she does, and she takes the opportunity to use that gulf of experience to further alienate herself from those around her. See above quote, which comes form her roommate, Reagan, a brash girl who takes it upon herself to help Cath out of her shell, even though Cath would very much rather be alone.
“I feel sorry for you, and I’m going to be your friend.”
“I don’t want to be your friend,” Cath said as sternly as she could. “I like that we’re not friends.”
“Me, too. I’m sorry you ruined it by being so pathetic.”
The very weird thing about Cath and people like her (me, for instance), is that as much as we crave solitude and distance ourselves from other people very much on purpose, we also simultaneously and conversely crave the lifelines that more extroverted people extend to us, and are often grateful in hindsight for the pushes from others to get us out of our comfort zones. That’s what Reagan does for Cath (and to a certain extent, it’s what Wren used to do for Cath) — pushes her outside of her head and reminds her that she’s capable of more than she gives herself credit for, and that her fears and anxieties protect her, yes, but they also prevent her from experiencing her life.
Reagan is also hilarious. I should mention that part.
And with Reagan comes Levi (delicious, delicious Levi). The two of them comprise Cath’s social circle during her freshman year, as she tries to navigate her new semi-adult life, the pressures of school, and the perils of her major (Creative Writing), which includes a very cute boy slash writing partner named Nick, and a professor that Cath very much looks up to and wants to impress.
If all of this sounds boring, I apologize. Because Fangirl is anything but boring. Cath’s inner life is rich and complicated, full of conflicting desires and feelings. Rainbow Rowell’s characters, and by extension her dialogue, fairly leap off the page. They feel real in a way that characters rarely do in fiction, and the situations they find themselves in, the things they say, feel like things people would actually say. They feel like things my friends and I would say. They feel like friends.
“I’d rather pour myself into a world I love and understand than try to make something up out of nothing.”
Besides the novelty of reading a book about a girl who might actually exist in real life, probably the most notable thing about Fangirl is the way that it engages with fan culture. People who participate in fan culture (and I’m not talking about casual participation here) are set apart from people who don’t. Fan culture is like Fight Club — the first rule is that you don’t talk about
Fight Club Fan Culture. And not because it’s something to be ashamed of inherently, but because it’s something that people who don’t participate do not understand. And speaking from experience, regardless of whether or not non-participants actually look down upon participants, there’s this pervasive sense that the shaming is happening behind your back anyway. Fanfiction is not real writing. Fanfiction is plagiarism. Fanfiction is for people who can’t think up their own ideas.
The genius of Fangirl is that while it’s busying demystifying fans and fandom and deshaming them in the process, it also acknowledges that those are actual thoughts people might have (i.e. the reaction of Cath’s professor, or Reagan’s initial reaction — again, see above), it also suggests that the more important realization to be had here is that these are fears Cath also secretly has about herself. Cath loses herself in fanfiction for good reasons, but for bad ones as well. It’s easier for her to keep playing around in Simon’s world than to find herself in her own writing.
“You give away nice like it doesn’t cost you anything.”
So yeah, Fangirl is about growing up and writing and making friends and the power of communities and the bonds between families, but it’s also about love, something else that Cath is afraid to open herself up to. I’m not going to say too much about this aspect of the plot because I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say that Cath falling in love hit me like a ton of bricks to the stomach. I love how Rainbow writes Cath falling in love the same way she writes the way Cath lives, how she keeps everything inside to protect herself, and how satisfying it is when she finally lets herself give in.
I read this book fast and I read it hard, and when I was done I wanted to start all over again. Rainbow Rowell is good. She’s very good. And if she continues to write books like this, I can’t promise I won’t lose my damn mind every time I read one.