Longer review! With caveat: I finished this last night. Late last night. Usually when I write a review, I write an outline, let it sit, and then go back after I've cogitated for a few days. Because this book is on sale right now, I don't want you to miss the opportunity to read it because oh my gosh it's amazing. So please forgive the somewhat abrupt tone of this review. I'm skipping the cogitation and attempting NOT to squee all over the place.
Cather (that's her whole name, for reasons that are painfully revealed later in the story) Avery is a college freshman. Her identical twin, Wren, has announced that she doesn't want to room with Cather at the university they're attending in Nebraska, and has found a new roomie/bff in Courtney. Cather is miserable. She doesn't want to leave their dad, who is mentally ill and alone now that his daughters are heading to college. The girls' mother abandoned them in 3rd grade, and Cather hasn't seen her since. She doesn't want to start a new routine, live in a new place with someone she doesn't know, and start a new daily life without any of the constants in her world.
Cath has some serious anxiety, and she knows it. In the beginning of the book, she has jars of peanut butter and protein bars under her bed because going to the school dining hall is terrifying. She doesn't know where it is, or how to go through it, or what the rules are, and the anxiety of being in the way and not knowing what to do or where to go keeps Cath hungry and subsisting on what she's got under the bed for a long while.
Cather's anxiety and fears were almost three dimensional in this book. They were more than palpable. I remember that terror of not knowing what to do, or where to go, and knowing I had to figure out every step of every part of my routine out by myself. Cath expected to have Wren, but Wren is less and less interested in doing anything she used to do, including hanging out with Cath, and while their separation is excruciating for Cath, Wren appears not to be bothered at all.
Cath's roommate Reagan and Reagan's ex-boyfriend, Levi, are near-constant fixtures in Cath's room and she learns to adjust to new people, and her world, especially because Reagan, who is an upperclassman who wanted her own room but ended up with Cath, notices that Cath needs help and forces her into the dining hall, into a routine, into meeting a few people. Reagan is incredibly prickly and cranky, but somehow doesn't scare Cath into hiding under the bed with the peanut butter (I was a little intimidated by Reagan. She's fierce).
There are a few bright spots in Cath's freshman year. She is allowed to sign up for an advanced seminar in fiction writing, the only freshman in the class, and she meets a writer who seems to take an interest in working with her. Levi is constantly around, walking Cath from class or too class if he thinks it's not safe or too dark for her to walking campus by herself. She has occasional meals and people watching with Reagan, Cath providing a silghtly more sympathetic narrative with Reagan snarking the hell out of everyone.
And then there is Cath's fanfic.
Cath is a huge person in the fanfic world of this book. Like, huge. Her stories have badrillions of hits, and her latest story, Carry On, Simon, is one of the most popular fics about a series of paranormal stories similar to Harry Potter. Simon Snow, the protagonist, is, like HP, a young orphan in a sorcery school, and he has a brilliant nemesis (think Draco) who antagonises him, so in excellent fashion, Cath has paired them in one epic slash. The eighth book of the Simon Snow series hasn't been released yet, and Cath is trying to finish her own version of the story,
The Simon Snow fanfic was something that Wren and Cath had started together, and Wren's absence as Cath finishes it alone is even more difficult for her. Originally, Cath wrote the dialogue and Wren filled in the rest, but Cath has been writing and posting and writing and posting on her own for months.
Fanfic is something Cath keeps a secret, knowing that it wouldn't make sense to most people. Her love of the Simon Snow universe is something that brings her comfort and peace and familiarity, and even then she knows that she can't reveal the extent of her involvement because people won't understand. She brings a fraction of her Snow paraphernalia with her, only a few things that will inspire her to keep going with Carry On, Simon, and those few items cause some commentary from Reagan. Soon Cath is trying to negotiate Wren's increasingly out of control behavior, her father's increasing mania and lack of self care in her absence, her confusing feelings for the dudes in her life, her difficult and challenging course work for fiction writing, and her anxiety increasing as all those problems grow larger and follow her everywhere, growing bigger when she takes her eyes off them for just a moment.
Her one constant and comfort is the fanfic. Not the admiration or the scores of people who clamor for more, or the compliments and comments and hits she gets. It's the actual writing of the fanfic that brings her peace and balance. All her feelings and fears and difficulties and uncertainties go into the story. She writes thousands of words per night, per hour, it seems, because she's almost compelled to finish before the last book comes out.
It's really difficult for me to explain how huge a role fanfic and writing play in Cath's life. The story is from her point of view (deeply, but not first person) and her passion and drive to keep writing her version, her familiarity with the characters and her genuine love for them and for the world of the books are so powerful. In addition to the anxiety that she felt, Cath is also deeply, deeply lonely. She's surrounded herself with incomplete people — characters, online acquaintances based on her fanfic, comments — and her sister was the only person who spanned both worlds. Without Wren, Cath feels most at ease when writing and adding to her story. But her fear of new situations and new people, her anxiety about situations, and her fear that, like her father and her mother there's something deeply wrong with her, all compound to make her escape into fanfiction poignant and understandable, and also terribly lonely.
My one problem with the book is the end. So much that is so big is wrapped up so quickly, and seems too easy. Cath forgives some people so easily I was shocked – they'd treated her terribly, and it seemed that she was willing to forgive that so long as they'd be back in her life, a recognizable part of her stability and familiarity. But then, there are other people who treat Cath really really badly, who take advantage of her, and she serves them exactly what they deserve. For all her fears, Cath is not a doormat. That was my favorite thing about her, really. She can and does stand up for herself. She's afraid, but she knows what she has to do, and she does it as best she can. She probably wouldn't think of herself in that way, but sometimes she's as fierce as Reagan and it's awesome to read.
Here are some of the sections I highlighted because I wanted to go back and re-read them. I nearly had to restart this review because I kept re-reading the book and nearly lost my connection.
Cath and Levi, when Cath is calling Levi on his bullshit:
“So I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that…. I mean, I know why I said it, but I was wrong. Really wrong. And I wish I could go back to that morning, when I woke up here, and have a stern talk with myself, so that the rest of this crap wouldn’t have happened.”
“I wonder…,” she said, “if there was such a thing as time machines, would anyone ever use them to go to the future?”
But really, and I can't forget to mention this part, one of the most amazing parts of this book is how it is as much about writing and the drive and passion to write, as it is about the characters who do the writing.
Cath and her fiction writing partner:
She liked to sit next to him and watch all that good come out of his hand. Watch the jokes spill out in real time. Watch the words click together.
Cath's fiction writing professor, discussing Cath's fear of starting her own world and preferring Simon Snow's:
“Think about it, Cath. That’s what makes a god— or a mother. There’s nothing more intoxicating than creating something from nothing. Creating something from yourself.”
Wren lecturing Cath:
“Happily ever after, or even just together ever after, is not cheesy,” Wren said. “It’s the noblest, like, the most courageous thing two people can shoot for.”
Cath, thinking about kissing:
“…they kissed. Kissed. Cath loved that word. She used it sparingly in her fic, just because it felt so powerful. It felt like kissing to say it. Well done, English language.
The squee cannon is set to “STUN” for me with this book, and if I were to try to tell you about it verbally, I'd wave my hands around and make noises and sigh and make Good Book Noise® a couple times and then become completely incoherent. This book made all the emotional tingles and the sniffly reading and the big sighs happen for me as a reader. I so identified with Cath, with her loneliness and her fear and her determination and her becoming absorbed in other worlds and her fear that she wasn't quite normal because she loved that world so much.
Thank you to all the people who told me I had to read this book. You were so, so right. Thank you.
ETA: 3 Nov – the $1.40 sale is over, unfortunately, and I hope you grabbed a copy.