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Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

fangirlA coming-of-age tale of fan fiction, family and first love. 
Cath is a Simon Snow fan.
Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan . . .

But for Cath, being a fan is her life — and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.

Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fan fiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.
Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to. Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone.

She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.
For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? Writing her own stories? And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?

Rainbow Rowell has the innate ability to get into my head and extract memories from my own experiences – or at least that’s how it seems. Each time I pick up one of her books – Attachments, Eleanor & Park and now Fangirl – I find myself lost in a story that is all-too-real and emotionally draining.

Cath broke my heart a few times over the course of this novel. Lost in a world partially of her own creation via her leading role in the fan fiction world, she is has been left behind due to her mother’s physical departure and her father’s emotional check out, and is basically abandoned again by her twin when they reach university. Unsure of herself, suddenly single early in the novel and left only with her fan-fiction writing as a comfort, she resists joining the ‘real world’ of university.

“In some cases, she was actively trying not to make friends, though she usually stopped short of being rude. (Uptight, tense, and mildly misanthropic? Yes. Rude? No.)”

As a result, she appears very young, and I had to remind myself that she would have been just that. First year students are like that – either too afraid, initially, to connect and to take chances, or they head to the other extreme – too confident, too risky and too cocky for their own good. Cath has some elements of both – she refuses to believe that her fan fiction is not original writing and fights as only a first year English major can over her professor’s decision. (Ah, those were the days…) She retreats into the world of her fan fiction (and let’s be honest, we’ve all chosen books over reality at some point), but she’s perhaps more ostrich than most. My heart went out with her as I could completely relate to her unhappiness and to her obsession with books. Watching her confidence grow slowly over the course of the novel was a joy; Rowell understands how young adults must learn to trust themselves before they can truly be considered adults.

Wren’s part of the story is also very real; she enters a world where alcohol is used to distance herself and to numb the unease of her own insecurities. Wren is determined to reinvent herself, and to leave everything about her own life behind, including her own sister. She lives a wilder life than her sister, but she’s just as lonely. Instead of living in the pages of a book, she’s chosen to live entirely around people – her exciting new friends, her classmates, her new boyfriend. Whomever said you can be in a crowd of people and still be alone wasn’t wrong, and deep down, Wren knows this all too well.

Reagan … well, Reagan is my new fictional best friend. She’s the roommate that Cath needs, someone who pushes her out of her comfort zone, and someone who – in her own way – is concerned about Cath and wants her to open up and explore life at university. Introducing Cath to Levi (the perfect first uni boyfriend, in my view) is part of the process, albeit a slightly odd way to go about things. I adore her – the bluntness, the social confidence, the self-assuredness – and wish every first year student could have her on their side.

“No,’ Cath said, ‘seriously. Look at you. You’ve got your shit together, you’re not scared of anything. I’m scared of everything. And I’m crazy. Like maybe you think I’m a little crazy, but I only ever let people see the tip of my crazy iceberg. Underneath this veneer of slightly crazy and socially inept, I’m a complete disaster.”

Stylistically this is really three books in one: the story of Cath and her family and struggles, Cath’s fan-fiction stories and ‘real’ stories of Simon Snow (a thinly veiled Harry Potter series, coming to a close with the release of the final book). I was fascinated by Rowell’s development as a writer in this book. She carried a dual narrative in her first book, Attachments, but those existed in the same frame of reference. For this, Rowell has managed to create three separate styles of writing. While the original Simon Snow stories and the fan-fiction are connected, they are written in very different voices, and the fan-fiction definitely reflects Cath’s own mannerisms. It’s a tricky thing to manage, but Rowell pulls it off.

Another different aspect to this novel is the idea of the broken parental figures. Wren and Cath’s mother disappeared long ago and they have learned to live without her, if not to forget her. Their father has his own issues, and it has been up to Cath and Wren (okay, mainly Cath) to keep him on track. Without them, he falls apart again. It is usual to see one parent lose control in YA novels – alcoholism, mental illness, neglect – but it is rare to see the parent/child dynamic reversed so dramatically. It was a bold move, and I think that it worked well, especially as it gave us another insight into Cath’s world and why she had so many fears about boldly stepping beyond her boundaries.

Ultimately, though, Fangirl is a story about evolution, about personal growth, about becoming the person you are meant to become. It’s not an easy process, and there will be mistakes and heartbreak on the way. Cath learns that sometimes just being yourself is more than okay, because the people who matter like you for who you are, not for what you do or how you want to be in life. The journey is worth it, in the end.

“It’s okay if you’re crazy,” he said softly.
“You don’t even know-“
“I don’t have to know,” he said. “I’m rooting for you.”

Fangirl is published by St. Martin’s Press, and was provided by St. Martin’s Press and Raincoast Books in exchange for an honest review. It is available for purchase through Indigo, Kobo and your friendly indie bookseller. ISBN: 9781250030955, 448 pages (hardcover)

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