As a young girl, I would read and reread novels that featured a girl protagonist that I could relate to in some way. It was interesting to see what more I could get from the protagonist each time I read it. It seemed like my closest friends were fictional, which is what Fangirl is centred around. A growing young woman who just can’t let go of her fictional friends. Fangirl was published in 2013 and since then has become a staple story for other fangirls (and fanboys). Rainbow Rowell has created a coming-of-age story that is charming in so many ways. It touches on a large handful of themes, mental illness, internet communities, the hardships of writing, addiction, broken families and first love.
Fangirl follows two twins, Cath and Wren, starting their first year at college together. Up until this point they have done everything together but Wren decides that she wants to break away and do her own thing, going as far as living in a different dorm on the other side of campus. Cath is stuck with Reagan, who is 3 years older and the exact opposite of herself. Reagan also has a male extension called Levi who is never far away from the room. Cath is ultimately lost without Wren but finds solace in her fanfiction.
Cath is a relatable character for all the “nerdy-bookish-writer-types”, you can see her as a real person and not just the weird girl who stays in her room all the time. After losing her left arm (Wren), she must pick herself back up again and find her own person out of the twin unit. In the first few weeks of College she hides out in her room with enough snacks so she doesn’t have to brave the people in the dining hall. This quote, about a new foreign situation, speaks volumes for someone who needs control on life without being brave enough to speak to anyone.
In new situations, all the trickiest rules are the ones nobody bothers to explain to you. (And the ones you can’t Google.)
Cath’s writing journey in central to the novel. She’s spent most of her life writing Simon Snow fanfiction. She’s a witty writer and her fanfic Carry On (the longest one that she has worked on) got awarded for being “The Most Canon.” This led to her work being read by thousands of people online. She struggles with stepping outside of her fanfiction shoes for her fiction writing class. It’s difficult for her to create her own characters, they just feel forced and unrealistic. The journey of finding your literary voice is not one for the faint of heart.
It felt good to be writing in her own room, in her own bed. To get lost in the World of Mages and stay lost. To not hear any voices in her head but Simon’s and Baz’s. Not even her own. This was why Cath wrote fic. For these hours when their world supplanted the real world. When she could just ride their feelings for each other like a wave, like something falling downhill.
Fanfiction is an open and welcoming community that is struggling with being identified as “proper” writing. There’s so many debates out there about the topic and in Fangirl we see these struggles through Cath. We also see it through the commentary of the people around her when they find out that she’s writing about two men falling in love, when in the books they were enemies.
Before every chapter there’s snippets of both Cath’s fanfiction and the actual Simon Snow books. Rowell ties these into the story without it seeming disjointed, the sections from the books and fanfiction are reflections of Cath’s life with loss, loneliness and love.
The only negative of the fanfiction element is that Levi says to Cath when he finds out about what she writes, “it’s hard for me to get my head around it. It’s like hearing that Harry Potter is gay.”
This pulled me out of the flow of the novel because I was under the impression that Simon Snow was a spin-off from Harry Potter. Simon Snow has 7 best-selling books that were turned into feature films, a world centred around a school of magic and is predominantly aimed at children.
Rowell creates flawed characters that weave the themes of the novel through themselves. You could quite easily step into the character’s shoes and feel like you are learning from them without having the themes shoved down your throat.
Wren is on her own college journey that is heavily in with partying which escalates to borderline alcoholism. Although Wren says that it’s completely normal we can pin the addictive personality onto her because of Cath’s own addictions. As an adolescent or young adult reading the novel this message might stick with you without anyone blatantly saying, “alcohol is a dangerous crutch.”
Levi is another vital character in the story who is flawed in his own ways. He’s an extremely kind person who smiles at everyone he sees, which from Cath’s socially anxious perspective is “weird”. He’s seen as an adult force who lives away from campus and has everything together. Later we find out that he has difficulties reading, a perfect counterpart for Cath who couldn’t see her life without reading.
At 460 pages, Fangirl is on the longer end of YA, but there still isn’t enough of it. Which isn’t a negative of the story, it just means that I could read about Cath, her family and friends for their entire life span. It makes me happy that the new generations of introverted nerdy girls (and boys) will be able to grow up and read the influential voice of Cath. Don’t be afraid of being yourself and keep on writing that fanfiction, as Cath said, “reading is not lonely.”
By Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Press
$16.99 pb, 445pp, 9780804121286