Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Rating: 4.5 Stars
I can't stop thinking about this book. Rowell's Eleanor & Park was the type of story that had the potential to become a favorite, but simply never broke that barrier of cheese. Needless to say, I was more than a little concerned diving into Fangirl. Although the masses of reviews claimed I'd love this (though they've been wrong before!), I still opened this book with trepidation. I slowly waded through those first few chapters, not entirely reviled, but not entirely enthralled either. And then, before I knew it, my fingers were flying across the pages, my eyes were growing red from emotion, and the book refused to leave my hands, my soul, my mind.
Fangirl isn't necessarily a ground-breaking read. Rowell, frankly, has done nothing overly brilliant with her latest piece. It is just a book. And yet, what makes it strike a chord in my heart is not the subject matter of fandoms, but rather the genuine manner in which college life is portrayed. What does it take to get a book about college devoid of alpha males and dramatic romance? Rainbow Rowell, apparently. For me, reading good New Adult is a refreshing, exotic experience, merely because it is so very rare, so this book is - truly - a gem. In its bare-bones form, Fangirl is the tale of a girl emerging from her shell. Only, you know, with plenty of fanfiction, romance, and parties thrown in.
Cath and Wren, twin sisters, have gone through everything together - their mother's abandonment, their father's quirks, their Simon Snow obsessions - and now they're both going to the same college. Only, this time, Wren wants her own freedom, leaving Cath - shy, insecure, and timid - to a new life all alone. All Cath has that teethers her to her old life are her fans. Cath, the writer of "Carry On", one of the biggest fanfiction stories on the internet, lives and breathes Simon Snow. Or, specifically, Simon and Baz - two enemies, one love story, totally not canon at all(think Drarry). Thus, unlike her party-going sister, Cath locks herself up in her room with nothing but her laptop for company. It turns out, though, that being a self-imposed recluse isn't quite so easy in college, and whether or not Cath embraces college-life, college-life is certainly going to be embracing her.
What I love about Fangirl is the realistic growth arcs that all the characters undergo. Most notably, of course, is Cath. What Rowell makes so clear in this novel is that taking chances means opening yourself up to both the good and the bad. While Cath goes one step forward - befriending her roommate Reagan, for instance - she is also forced back by a plethora of difficulties that embrace her at every turn. Not just socially, but academically as well. Cath struggles to perform well in her classes, pursuing an English degree, and write her fanfiction. She struggles to become self-reliant, on herself and new friends, instead of her sister. And, most importantly, she struggles to fully put aside her past life, perhaps because that life still exists. Just because Cath is in college, that doesn't mean that her past eighteen years are worthless. No, she still has to worry about her father, still has to live without her mother, still has to encounter the "crazy" in her head. And, though it can feel that there are simply too many problems on Cath's shoulders, there are also so many small reasons to be happy.
Rowell captures the depth and scope of these issues perfectly, creating a divide between Cath and Wren, forcing Cath to push outside her barriers, and making her realize her full potential - as a writer, as a friend, and as a sister. Moreover, I love the direction that Rowell takes this romance in. On one hand, it's slow-burn romance, tantalizing and gentle. On the other, however, it had the potential for a great deal of angst, which thankfully, Rowell immediately cuts off. Cath and her romantic interest hold real discussions with one another and, best of all, he never pushes her to move too fast, instead respecting her wishes for space and trying to understand any qualms she may have. Rowell depicts a wonderful romance, built on equal-footing and mutual respect, but also one that goes beyond those initial stages and into a much more complicated route. And yet, Rowell doesn't hesitate from sex, or at least discussions of sex and safe sex behavior. Fangirl is refreshing, mostly because of its catapult into New Adult, but partly because of its honest depiction of sex as well.
Where Fangirl falters is, ironically, in its portrayal of a fangirl. Cath, who loves the Simon Snow books and movies, reads like a true fangirl, in all her crazy glory. Rowell explores the difficulties that this may pose in college, which I appreciated, but this immersement into Cath's world is clunky and jarring at first. Moreover, the excerpts from Simon Snow novels and fanfiction that grace the endings of every chapter are, at times, unnecessary, doing nothing but slowing the pace of the novel. I think they were a highly creative manner of incorporating the Simon Snow Series into this book and when the excerpts matched up with the chapters, they were truly powerful, but that effect wasn't felt as constantly as I'd have liked. Either than that small blimp, though, I found that Rowell tackled everything beautifully in this novel, pulling together all the plot threads, tying up all loose ends, and writing one of my favorite self-discovery novels.
Fangirl will obviously appeal to the masses of fangirls (and fanboys) out there, but more than that, it is such a remarkable novel because its protagonist manages to grow and learn and change her outlook on life without embarking on a road trip or traveling to an exotic land. Instead, she is forced to stay put in college, to work out her issues with her sister, her professor, and her friends and tackle on all the challenges life throws at her instead of merely discarding them to be dealt with later. Rowell captures this tumultuous period in Cath's life perfectly, showing us the good and bad in everyone so that no one character lacks gray matter. Rowell's Fangirl hasn't quite made a fangirl out of me yet, but slowly and surely, Rowell will.