Book Review

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

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Title: Fangirl
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publication Info: Macmillan September 2013
ISBN: 9781250030955
Genre: Young Adult

Book FangirlThe TL;DR: this book is wonderful. It's so much empathy and understanding and emotion layered into narrative form I can't even tell you. And it's still $1.40. Go buy it. Seriously.

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. 


This book is available at Goodreads | Amazon  BN | Sony | Kobo | iBooks

ETA: 3 Nov – the $1.40 sale is over, unfortunately, and I hope you grabbed a copy. 

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Sveta says:

    Although not a traditional romance, do try Eleanor and Park by the same author.

  2. 2
    Ashley F says:

    I really loved this book. I’m in my low-mid twenties and when I read this book I could see myself in Cath. I could understand her love of fanfiction, the degrading attitude some have towards it, and being afraid in a new place. I loved HP and while I didn’t write or read fanfics about it, I had friends who did. These characters were such a part of daily life and to get slammed with them being not your own and unworthy of your time was hurtful to some.  I understood Cath and I understood her actions.

    This is one of those books I think everyone (mostly girls) between 18-30 should read. This book just captures the essence of what it was like growing up with Harry Potter and the feelings of being alone and afraid during a freshman year of college. While I wasn’t lucky enough to have my own Levi, he was exactly the sort of person I wanted to be there. I wish I’d had a Reagan. I wish I’d had a Wren to keep things interesting. These were characters I wanted and I was sort of bummed I didn’t get them.

    I’m glad this book is getting so much press and the sale price is awesome (I picked it up for a re-read). I think it is one of those books that is just so relateable and should be held up for some respect. I haven’t read any other Rainbow Rowell books but I’m eager to try some of her others after my absolute love of Fangirl has died down to a background simmer. I’m afraid I’ll dislike the others if they don’t measure up and every book should get their fair shot.

    Great review and SQUEE!

  3. 3
    Chris Z says:

    Loved this book!  I picked it up yesterday from your “books on sale” link.  I completely agree with you about the writing, the story, the characters.  I just re-read it this afternoon and sat down to send a “must read” note to my book buddies.

    I also picked up Eleanor & Park on sale yesterday.  It, too, was wonderful. 

    If you’re going to have a sick day, let it be filled by a fabulous new author and books on sale!

    I’m adding this author to my readerIq “author’s to watch” list.

  4. 4
    Chris Z says:

    Sorry!  typo in previous post.  readerIq should be ereaderIq.

  5. 5
    leftcoaster says:

    I stayed up all night to read this book and was a zombie the next day. It was so good. I was less scared of Reagan but maybe because I saw a little of myself in her. Loved how well this captured the feeling of college. And figuring out dudes. And friends. And family. Sigh.

  6. 6
    Heather S says:

    I had to pick up “Fangirl” – a mainstream book with a slash fanfic-writing protagonist? Catnip to me! I’m a fangirl myself – I’ve been a Star Trek fan (and Kirk/Spock shipper – because they’re so perfect for each other) for about 15 years now, and reading fanfic has really helped me get through some rough times – homesickness, deployment, multiple bouts of unemployment, depression, PTSD, the list goes on. There are some truly excellent authors – both published and not – who cut their writing teeth on fanfic and continue to write for the sheer enjoyment of it. One of my favorite authors spent some 15 years writing writing her opus, a huge series of novel-length K/S fics – she’s also a published author of original m/m romance. Fanfic in general (and slash in particular) is much-maligned and its aficionados mocked for being “out of touch with reality” and having “no life”, but aren’t all leisurely pursuits/hobbies a form of escapism to some extent? If I want to read a love story where the hero wins the other hero and they warp away into the next solar system then – by golly – that’s what I’ll read!

  7. 7
    ktg says:

    I adored this book so much I didn’t want it to end. Cath was wonderful, all the characters were fully fleshed out and real. I didn’t want it to end. (One of the many reasons I read and write fanfic.) I’m so glad I saw this for sale on your site and picked it up. I’ve been talking this up on my Facebook and I know I’ll recommend it to all my fandom friends.

  8. 8
    Amy Raby says:

    I picked this up when you recommended it on twitter. I’ve done the fandom thing. Looking forward to digging in!

  9. 9
    AnimeJune says:

    One thing I really enjoyed was the depiction of Cather’s mum, who keeps trying to get in touch with her. I’m on Cather’s side (i.e. the “Fuck that bitch and the belated-reconciliation-horse she rode in on” side), but the author also drops some hints about the mum’s life that make you think, “okay, you’re a still a reprehensible human being, but i can kind of understand the frame of mind you were in when you made your horrible, awful, no-good, daughter-psyche-scarring decisions.”

  10. 10
    Mollyscribbles says:

    I was wary approaching this book, because I’m in fandom and on every prior instance that I’ve come across mentions of fic or fic authors in published works it’s been screwed up royally.  Depicting the writers as total losers, describing het pairings as ‘slash’(the author in question telling me I was wrong after I politely corrected them), etc.

    I was pleasantly surprised by it.  The one niggling bit that bothered me was the scene where her writing professor claimed the fic she’d submitted for an assignment was plagiarism.  Which . . . no.  Give her a zero because the assignment was for original fiction and she submitted a fic, sure, but it wasn’t plagiarized.  Fic might be derivative, fine, but given that Jane Austen fanfic is viewed as perfectly fine and publishable implies that any ethical problems fanfiction might present vanish when it falls out of copyright . . . I’m babbling.  It occurs to me that this isn’t with the book so much as the book depicting someone I want to yell at.

  11. 11
    LovelloftheWolves says:

    It was so amazing that by the middle of the story (like, the height of the drama) I was in tears. I just identified SO HARD with Cather that the emotions just got to me. Though I wasn’t that bad in College (thank god) I was that bad in high school. And middle school. UGH. Introversion and social anxiety make a bad c-c-c-combo.

    I was so so sad when I got to the ending. I looked over to my bf and said, sadly, “its done. I can’t believe it ended.” And he looked at me like I was crazy. The best way I can describe the way the book made me feel (besides EMOTIONS) was like a good Miyazaki movie. Like Kiki’s Delivery Service. Where the main emotional storyline gets tied up, but the character’s lives continue on, beyond the text, in the credits and into the black end screen. I GET SUPER TEARY-EYED.

    Also, on the fan-fic side of things, I loved the respect the author gives it. As someone who struggled with understanding *why* people wrote fanfic for years (for the same reason the teacher did – because why use someone else’s characters/ worlds when you could make up your own!) and someone who really loves the fan-fic world now, Fangirl’s depiction is great.

  12. 12

    “Thank you to all the people who told me I had to read this book. You were so, so right. Thank you.”
    —- it was the best, right?  it even made you SQUEE!!

    how about when she stays up all night reading to Levi?

  13. 13
    Layla says:

    Thanks for recommending this. I can’t believe how much this resonated with me. I didn’t want it to be over, ever.

  14. 14

    I’m about 2/3rds in. I was reading the ARC when I was told that the ARC and the final product actually differed quite a bit. (UGH!) But I was loving what I was reading.

    I know it would sound like a cliche if I said I understood so much of what Cath was going through emotionally. I won’t reveal too much because I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that it was super therapeutic for me when I used to write fan fiction. It was so awesome to be a part of something where I was considered really good and needed.

    I’m glad i heard about the sale, because I bought the ebook and went on to purchase the “whispersync” audio book for $12.

  15. 15
    Molly Shannon says:

    I love the Fangirl cover and title! Great review :-). Sounds like a fun read, too. Thanks, Robyn, for your recommend, also. I just checked out the website, and will add this to my reading list.

  16. 16
    Swati Hegde says:

    I felt like this book was telling me what my college experience will be like next year.

    Fangirl was the perfect Christmas read!

    Let’s just hope I find a Levi for myself, too. XD

    Here’s the full review on my blog: http://geekie-chic.blogspot.in/2013/12/fangirl-by-rainbow-rowell-book-review.html

  17. 17
    Lara says:

    I picked up the Kindle version of FANGIRL on the basis of this review and promptly fell head over heels in love with it… until the last 5 pages.

    ***SPOILER ALERT***

    Like SB Sarah hints at above, the ending stinks. It’s just. SO. BAD. It’s sudden and rushed and has little to do with anything, and it offers no resolution to several of the main plot questions. I actually went into a book store and checked a physical copy of FANGIRL to see if the e-version was missing some pages or a chapter or two. Alas, no dice.

    Yes, we find out if Cath and Levi stay together. Yes, we learn that apparently Cath craps out a perfect short story in a couple hours (with no editing?) that wins a literary award. And yes, we find out that the 8th book comes out. But that’s ALL we learn.

    Does Cath manage to finish “Carry On” before the 8th book comes out? Was she happy with how she’d ended it? Did she kill off Baz? Did she feel like she accomplished something? Did it make her rethink her views on fiction writing? *shrug* WHO KNOWS.

    I was FURIOUS that these questions weren’t answered. I mean, why make the reader so invested in Cath’s struggle to write the damn story—why give us excerpts and show us her blood, sweat and tears— if you weren’t going to answer the basic question of whether she finishes the story or not?

    But there’s dozens of questions left unanswered: Does Levi ever get help for his learning disability, or even get it diagnosed? Does Wren ever follow through on getting help for her binge alcoholism? Does Wren stay in touch with their mother after being abandoned at the hospital? Speaking of which, who actually brought Wren to the hospital (it’s hinted that it’s Courtney, but never confirmed)? What about Dad? Is he in a healthier space now, or does he relapse again? Can he and Wren repair their relationship? Does Cath ever recognize her own codependence and tendency to caretake those around her? Back to Cath—does she go back to school the next year, since she was considering dropping out? Does all the attention she paid to her fic impact her grades? Is she still not interested in writing fiction commercially? Is she still interested in writing fanfic now that the 8th book is out (lots of fans leave a fandom once the source canon is complete). Heck, we don’t even learn what, if anything, the 8th book has to say about Simon/Baz (well, except for a tepid excerpt Cath reads to Levi, which to me came off really vague and queerbait-y)

    It’s like Rowell just got sick of writing this story and dropped it, and her editor(s) never called her on out on it. I was appalled by how many holes the denouement left behind, actually really upset by it, because this book was otherwise so good, ugh, just so incredibly magical that up until the end, I felt like it should be required reading for everyone who considers themselves a part of a fandom.

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