Guest Review: “Fangirl” by Rainbow Rowell

Guest reviewer Vanessa shares her thoughts on Rainbow Rowell's tale of girl meets fandom.

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In Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Cath is a Simon Snow fan. Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan, but for Cath, being a fan is her life—and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.

Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fan fiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.

Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to. Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction 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? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

Fangirl by Rainbow RowellImage from Macmillan Publishers

Novel: Fangirl
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: St Martins Press
Pages: 445

There comes a time in a geek/nerd/dork’s life when one realises that there’s an entire community out there who are willing to read the stories you wrote about [insert movie/TV show/book series/musical/play/video game here], and not only that, there is an entire subculture dedicated to it that pre-dates the Internet. Not only can you host your fan-fiction on your own online zine (if you want to get really archaic) or website, you can use communities like LiveJournal and a multitude of fan-fiction sites and forums. All for your perusal!

Did you want Blaise and Draco to have more… romantic interaction in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince? Ever wanted to read about George from Being Human‘s life before he was turned into a werewolf? Did you pick up on a romantic chemistry between two characters and decide they were forevermore your OTP? Do you simply want a cutesy story set in an alternate universe where Dean, Sam and Castiel from Supernatural are rival coffee shop owners? Well, dear reader, AO3, Fanfiction.net, LiveJournal, and countless other sites have you covered.

While there have been more than a few published novels from authors who started in fan-fiction, or even novels that essentially are fan-fiction with the serial numbers filed off, there hasn’t been a novel centring around a main character who does write these stories. Fan-fiction is hardly the niche hobby it used to be, and I’m sure there’s an audience who know all about fan-fiction and perhaps even write it. So why not give them a character they can relate to?

That’s where Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell comes in.

18 year old Cath is a well-known fan-fiction writer for the immensely popular Simon Snow book and movie series. Having latched on to the Simon Snow books and fandom as a crutch during a very painful time in her childhood, Cath is still emotionally stunted and wondering why her twin sister Wren, who was equally obsessed with the series as a youngster, has moved on with her life. Wren now goes to parties while Cath stays in her dorm, hidden behind her laptop screen and writing about the burgeoning romance between the titular Simon, and his  arch-rival Baz. Too socially awkward to make friends to begin with, her bolshy roommate Reagan starts to take her out, and that’s where Cath meets Levi, the kind-hearted boy next door who takes an interest in her. By making new friends, learning how to be more social and braving through emotional hardships, Cath learns the valuable lesson that while fandom is a lovely place to hang out in when you have spare time, it’s unhealthy to let it consume your entire life. (I know. I’ve been there.)

In fact, Cath is so consumed by her appreciation for fan-fiction that she actually hands in a Simon Snow story she’s written as an assignment. Thank God she had an understanding professor who simply gave her an F and then told her off, right? Rather than kicking her off the course? Presumably the intended reaction is for the audience to cringe, but it’s difficult to feel that way when Cath immediately gets morose about how fan work doesn’t hurt anybody and it’s so unfair that she got an F for plagiarism. Cath is supposedly a very talented writer, but she’s just too obsessed with Simon Snow to move on and even try to write original stories. She’s happy to help edit her classmate’s short story submission, but comes completely unstuck when told to use her own imagination.

It’s a good thing Cath is humanised so well later in the novel, because to begin with, she comes across as the kind of person who’d dig themselves a deep hole, jump in, and then whinge about how they can’t get out of it. Emotional developments are nicely woven into the plot rather than bashing the reader over the head with the soap-opera style melodrama than can be all too common in YA.

As we learn later in the book, Cath and Wren’s interest in Simon Snow stems from the pain they felt as children when their mother left them. Their father’s bipolar disorder (exacerbated by this turn of events), and their own feelings of abandonment led them both to seeking this safe haven within the pages of this popular new book series.

Now both of them are nearly adults, and while Wren is ready to move on and actually meet with their estranged mother, Cath cannot let go of her grudge and come to terms with her emotions, clinging to fandom as her rock. It’s actually really well done – perhaps because the tone of the book is rather light and airy, slowly building up and threading in story details without having to beat us over the head with big emotional revelations.

After every chapter, Fangirl cuts away to either a piece of Wren and Cath’s fan-fiction, or extracts from the Simon Snow books themselves. There’s also parts where Cath reads her fan-fiction aloud.  This might be a more personal thing, but it’s difficult to distinguish between the voices of Cath as the fan-fiction writer and the Simon Snow extracts. Could that mean that Cath is so obsessed with Gemma T. Leslie’s writing style that she’s virtually copied it right down to a T? Perhaps. But perhaps not.

Speaking of Simon Snow, though – there’s this one moment in Fangirl that was particularly baffling:

“I don’t know,” Levi said. “It’s hard for me to get my head around. It’s like hearing that Harry Potter is gay. Or Encylopedia Brown.” (Loc. 1894-5)

So… Fangirl is set in the bizarre alternate universe where Harry Potter exists as a figure in the popular consciousness, but Simon Snow, a series that began in the early 2000s became infinitely more popular, despite being a huge rip-off? Simon Snow takes place at a magical school where the eponymous character is an orphan and supposedly the chosen one, has two best friends, and an intense rivalry with Baz, a Draco in Leather Pants who is also a vampire. The second Simon Snow book revolves around searching for a legendary serpent, one of the books involves Baz keeping secrets and Simon stalking him like it’s his day job, and there’s also a ‘Veiled Forest’ that’s totally not the Forbidden Forest. So, considering that Harry Potter does exist in this universe, wouldn’t J.K. Rowling have sued so hard by now? It may just be the one mention in the entire book, but it did lodge this seed in my head. (Though, speaking of Harry Potter adaptations that have become rather popular…)

Some of the more cynical might go: “Oh, this is just another ‘nerdy girl learns to be pretty once a boy comes into her life’ plot. Don’t we have enough of those?” Well… yeah, Fangirl kind of is and isn’t that typical. Levi is sweet and described as gorgeous, and Cath’s relationship with him is genuinely charming. He’s kind, non-judgemental, and apologetic when he’s done wrong. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his flaws, but he’s definitely a lovely guy and far from the gross bad boys one is supposed to fall over in YA.

The ending of the novel is rather rushed, sadly. Wren and Cath’s family life is hardly alluded to during the final 10% of the novel, instead focusing on the race to finish a fan-fiction before the final Simon Snow book is released, which is admittedly a fine method for the girls to realise that the story they grew up loving is now over and they have to move on with their adult lives. There’s also one other thing Cath has to accomplish – her short story project, which is simply swept under the rug, because we’ve got to end this somehow! Cath accomplishes writing this important project in about a day and still gets the prize for undergraduate writing. No, sorry. That’s not fair. She hardly attended her classes (out of her own volition, not when personal events were stopping her), stopped handing in assignments… Her creative writing professor took a shine to her early on and not only let Cath skip over being punished for plagiarism, she also gave her a ridiculously long extension for said short story, when it was supposed to be handed in at the end of the winter semester! (Also, were we supposed to start loathing Cath’s writing partner Nick at some point towards the end? The memo never reached my desk.) And what about the girls’ mother? We see hide nor hair from her after one of the more important scenes in the book. Oh, well. Back to college and having an awesome time with friends as the semester wraps up!

All in all, Fangirl is a fun, breezy read that’s actually got some decent character development and knows precisely when to weave it in. Cath is a more realistic portrait of the fan-fiction author than the lazy caricature a lesser writer would have gone for, thank God, and I really believed in her confusion and pain as to why she and her sister suddenly drifting apart. Levi is lovely, and Reagan is harsh, but funny. In fact, aside from one or two clangers in terms of metaphor and simile, I did find myself smiling several times while reading this.

My only real bugbear are the parts with Simon Snow fan-fiction and extracts from the novel. They take up too much space, and I wound up skimming over this half-baked Harry Potter-lite narrative after the first few times. Nice as a novelty, but not after every single chapter and several chapters where Cath simply reads it out to Levi or goes on long tirades about what she’s doing in the story. It slows down the story and the voices become utterly indistinguishable from another. The ending kind of speeds everything up rather unnecessarily, but it’s ultimately satisfactory.

3.5/5.

Fangirl is available now at Amazon UK, Amazon US and the Book Depository.

Vanessa is a Brit from the boonies who’s been reading for so long she decided to start blogging about the books and manga she reads. She reviews books, manga & film and writes recaps of novels, notably the Tiger’s Curse series, on her blog

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