by Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Press, 2013
I had high hopes for Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl when I bought it, but because of disappointments with other YA books, I tempered my expectations. But it turns out I didn’t need to. I enjoyed Fangirl every bit as much as I’d hoped I would, and then some.
Fangirl is the story of a young woman’s first year away at college as she stretches her wings and becomes more of an individual away from her home, family, and twin sister/best friend. It’s also the story of how she develops into a writer, which is cool because it’s not a common topic for a YA novel. Cather (her twin sister is named Wren, Cather-wren, get it?) is a long-time fan of the fictional British YA series Simon Snow, written by one Gemma T. Leslie. Simon Snow is a Harry Potter clone, both series featuring orphaned boy wizards attending magical boarding schools. Cather has risen through fanfic ranks to become one of the best and most prolific writers, and it’s clear she uses her writing to deal with her trauma – a bipolar father, a mother who walked out on her children. Cather has used it as a coping mechanism for so long that when she takes a “real” writing class given by a well-regarded novelist she freaks out:
|“… I don’t want to write my own fiction,” Cath said, as emphatically as she could. “I don’t want to write my own characters or my own worlds—I don’t care about them.” She clenched her fists in her lap. “I care about Simon Snow. And I know he’s not mine, but that doesn’t matter to me. I’d rather pour myself into a world I love and understand than try to make something up out of nothing.”|
Many fanfic writers could say the same thing.
Rowell’s style is quiet and deceptively simple. There are no whambams of melodrama on display, no gushes of MFA technique. I liked it; it was a relief after the hammered histrionics of Children of Blood and Bone. And Cather’s problems are quiet ones. She feels awkward at college and doesn’t know how to deal with her more mature and worldly roommate. Her twin abandons her, becoming a stereotypical party-hardy freshman, and so Cather hides in her room and first and hoards energy bars so she won’t have to socialize in the dorm cafeteria. It’s not that anxiety cripples her, she just doesn’t want to deal – she prefers her world of fiction, and to the book’s credit, this is never portrayed as abhorrent or something that she must outgrow. It was fun to read about the ways she deals with her situation and chooses, or doesn’t choose, to mature — whether it’s accepting a stranger’s invitation or examining her own motivations.
There’s a romance as well, and that too is very cute and true to life. The love interest is a real person and very different from Cather, yet that’s all right; each has valid reasons, and speaks them, for being attracted to the other. I had to laugh because Levi, the young man she eventually falls for, is the sort of character everyone encounters at least once in their lives: the eternal smiler, who is always so nice, and so polite, it is hard to know whether it means his attraction or just business as usual. Cather, naturally, is confused, seeing males in general as a species of strange, foreign animal. The two bond in a natural way when he expresses an interest in hearing her fanfic – he enjoys narration, not reading. Later, when she realizes it’s all right to show and express her affection for him, fireworks go off.
The book is set in the Midwest Neverland of Nebraska State University, as exotic to me as Orisha or Earthsea was. It had its own character in a way that the other YA contemporary I read, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, which was set in an Atlanta suburb, did not.
Passages from the Simon Snow books were given at the beginning of each chapter and Cather’s own Simon Snow fanfic was sprinkled throughout. There’s even slashy fanon portrayed with Simon’s love-hate relationship with his roommate Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch, who just happens to be a vampire (as if you didn’t know that by the name.) Rowell never gives us a complete overview of the series, so the reader has to infer the plot and characters by the hints given in the excerpts… a smart move to prevent the fictional world from taking over the book. (I found Cather’s story more interesting anyway.) If I had to make a criticism, it’s that the writing style of the actual book, the fictional book, and the fanfic of the fictional book were too similar. That Cather’s style was similar to Gemma T. Leslie’s shows her worship of the book series, but it’s also too close to Rowell’s actual one.
Although it was good Fangirl didn’t let Simon Snow overwhelm the real-life elements, it also meant the intricacies of fannish subculture barely received attention. Many fans have very active online social lives; they correspond and write stories together, swap artwork, and many times even meet in real life. Cather seemed to have none of that going on. It’s possible, I guess, that she was satisfied at having Wren, her twin sister, as her writing partner and sounding board throughout her prime writing years. (Wren makes a show of abandoning the fandom when they go off to college.) But perhaps the author was already juggling too many story elements and to add another one. A fanfic-writing girl attending college and coming of age, who lets her experiences influence her fan writing, and whose fan writing acts as a foil to real life, would be a very promising and interesting story, but Fangirl wasn’t that kind of book, nor did it set out to be.
It also offered no moralizing or conclusions, which was refreshing since the writing on the wall seemed to be “Fanfic writing is bad because it keeps you from experiencing real life.” Cather already knows her fanfic days are numbered because Gemma T. Leslie is drawing the Simon Snow series to a conclusion with the eighth and final book, and Cather wants to finish her own fanfic version of events before that. Wisely, Rowell never states if she will retire from fanfic or move on to another fandom. And though Cather declaims throughout the book that “real-life” writing is not for her, at the end of the book, as a coda, it’s revealed she wins a prize for an original short story she wrote for her school’s literary journal. So… something must have sunk in, somewhere. I like to think Cather has her cake and eats it too, seeing both kinds of writing as sides of the same coin.
All that, in sum, was what made the book interesting for me: how the fictional and passionate intersects with the real and mundane. How it can take it over at times, and sometimes transform it.
(It’s still a little odd to me that the YA I’ve liked the most were contemporaries, not SF or Fantasy, the genres which composed the majority of what I’ve read and written up to this point in my life. )
NOTE: Since publishing Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell has written and released the fanfic novel Cather Avery had been worked on in Fangirl. Like hers, it’s called Carry On and features Gemma T. Leslie’s magic school of Watford and characters Simon Snow, Baz, Agatha, and Penelope. It’s the first case ever of a professionally published fanfic based on a fanfic of a fictional book featured as a plot element in a professionally published book.
Says the author,
|“The most common question I’ve been asked is whether I’m writing as Cath or as Gemma T. Leslie … The answer is, I’m writing as me.
After I finished writing Fangirl, I kept thinking about Simon and Baz and the World of Mages … I wanted to write more about them, but I didn’t want to write the full series GTL-style. And I also didn’t want to write through Cath’s hands and brain.
I wanted to explore what I would do with this world and these characters.
So, even though I’m writing a book that was inspired by fictional fanfiction of a fictional series …
… I think what I’m writing now is canon.”
A sequel to Carry On, Wayward Son, has recently been announced.