Five out of Five Stars
I can’t think of any words powerful enough to adequately express how much I loved Fangirl, but I’m going to spend the rest of this review trying to find them.
Rainbow Rowell’s second young adult novel follows reticent Cath through her freshman year of college as she copes with social anxiety, a suddenly distant twin sister, balancing her fanfiction writing career with her Fiction Writing class, boys who smile too much, and boys who lie too much. There’s more too – child abandonment, mental instability, alcohol abuse, romance. It comes together to form one of the best contemporary novels I’ve ever read. Seriously. It’s up there with my favorite of favorites, Anna and the French Kiss. Possibly higher.
I think this is primarily because of how natural everything felt. Even the heavier topics I mentioned above manage to fit organically into the plot without ever overtaking the story. It’s not a novel about alcohol abuse or family problems or anxiety. It’s about Cath. All those issues just happen to be part of her life.
That naturalness applies to the characters as well. No matter how sparsely or frequently they appear, every single one of them seems just as real as anyone I’ve met during my own first year of college; as if (to use a phrase from the book) they were about to “evolve right off the page.” That goes for everyone from Cath’s twin sister Wren, to her snarky roommate Reagan, to Levi the ever-friendly Starbucks employee who always seems to be hanging around their room.
The relationships between all these characters, too, were gorgeously built. They grew slowly and honestly. No snap friendships or instant romance to be found here. Everything took time (sometimes, given Cath’s trust issues, quite a bit of time).
This is usually where I might add in a however or but; where I might comment on something that bugged me or didn’t exactly work. Hard as I search my mind, though, I can’t think of one negative thing to say about Fangirl. Not one.
So, instead, I’ll talk about something that could have gone badly, but didn’t. Really, really didn’t.
Much of the story centers around a made-up, Harry Potter-esque book series that Cath has not only adored since childhood, but for which she’s spent the last two years penning a novel-length fanfiction. I was skeptical at first of how Rowell would handle the fact that her main character was devoting a good chunk of her thoughts to books and characters with whom her readers would be unfamiliar.
It wasn’t a problem. Namely, because she made sure readers would be familiar with the Simon Snow world-within-a-world she’d created. Throughout the novel, Rowell separates sections with excerpts from both the Simon Snow books themselves and Cath’s Simon Snow fanfiction. This too somehow seemed perfectly natural and necessary; partly because these segments often had something to do with what was happening in Cath’s life, and partly because they provided proof of Cath’s passion for writing. Rowell doesn’t simply say that her main character is a writer. She shows her to be one. And, just as importantly, Rowell gives her readers the opportunity to care about Simon Snow, and so to understand why Cath does. (For the record, I miss Simon and Baz right now just as much as I do Cath and Levi.)
On that note, I happen to be a mild (by which I mean obsessed) fanfiction addict, but I hope I haven’t given the impression that you have to be a fangirl yourself to enjoy this book. You don’t. Fandom culture is certainly an element of the story, but, like the alcohol and abandonment plot lines, it never overpowers the narrative.
I’m still not sure I managed to express how much I enjoyed this book, but I’ll leave at this: Read Fangirl. It’s well written, quirky, deep, and definitely worth both the time and bookshelf space.