Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Time for another dual review.

The Short, Gushy, Ungrammatical Version:

OMG YOU GUYS FANGIRL IS SO AWESOME I feel the love oh yes I do why did I wait so long to read Rainbow Rowell this was exactly the book I needed exactly when I needed it which is to say it was TOTALLY AWESOME and it came at a time when I needed TOTAL AWESOMENESS in my life oh my goodness it was so wonderful I got so invested in Cath’s world and her emotional truth and all her friends OMG it hurt so much when Levi did the thing I can’t believe how much it hurt and also I was really worried about Wren and Reagan was great and OMG Cath’s dad and I love every little thing about how they all connect and there’s so much room for forgiveness and emotional maturity and working through stuff with people you care about but at the same time the narrative acknowledges that you don’t owe anybody your forgiveness OMG I CAN’T STOP THINKING ABOUT IT I HAVE SO MANY THOUGHTS and I’m still totally freaking out over Levi you have no idea and I love Cath so much I want to give her a great big hug and fangirl obsessively with her she is amazing so is this book you need to read it please and thanks goodbye.

The Sensical Version:

I first heard of Rainbow Rowell when Jenny, formerly of Jenny’s Books and now of Reading the End, didn't-really-review ATTACHMENTS. While I fear I failed to remember much of anything about the book, I was immediately drawn to the author’s name. "We need more people named Rainbow," I said1.

Because seriously: how awesome a name is Rainbow?

My bias towards people with awesome names kept Rainbow Rowell in the forefront of my subconscious for many months. When she came up again, over cupcakes with Lu of Regular Rumination, I was ready to be impressed. "Her books are amazing," Lu told me. "It’s like she’s writing my life, you know? It’s like reading my life."

This sounded wonderful, but I doubted it would apply to me given that Lu and I have different lives.

Then I read FANGIRL, and I got it. I totally, totally got it. Rainbow Rowell hasn’t written my life, but she’s written my emotional truth and that’s even better.

FANGIRL follows Cath, the eighteen-year-old author of the world’s most popular Simon Snow fanfic, through her first year of college. Cath’s nervous about the whole thing to begin with, but her anxieties escalate quickly as her twin sister distances herself with a separate dorm room and a slew of new friends bent on hitting all the parties, her Fiction-Writing professor slams fanfic in no uncertain terms, and her surly new roommate’s cheerful boyfriend insists on spending most of his time in Cath’s general vicinity. Overwhelmed, Cath realizes she has to make a quick adjustment into a world where no one’s around to prop her up--and she’s not so sure she can do that.

Except Cath isn’t even sort of alone, no matter how she feels on her first day of school. She’s got people on her side the whole time; it’s just a matter of finding a way to connect with them.

The power of connection lies at FANGIRL's heart. Rowell acknowledges that her characters are bound to have problems with other people, and that those problems needn’t last forever if both parties are willing to work through them. Second chances are always possible.

You might go through some serious shit with your sister as you grow into different people, but maybe you can build a new relationship that incorporates everything that’s changed between you.

The seemingly great guy who turned out to be kind of a douche doesn’t have to stay a douche forever if you tell him what’s bothering you and he’s willing to listen.

You don’t have to fix all your problems by yourself, and you don’t have to stand by and watch while someone else fixes all of theirs. Any relationship can be mended if you’re both willing to communicate, to be honest about your hang-ups, and to support each other. Rowell demonstrates this brilliantly via a series of totally organic, totally earned forgiveness storylines.

That said, the text also acknowledges that no one owes anyone else their forgiveness. Many of Cath’s anxieties (and her sister, Wren’s, choices) spring from the fact that her mother abandoned her. When Laura tries to get back in touch with her daughters, Cath is understandably upset. It’s always clear that her lack of sympathy towards her mother isn’t something she needs to change. It’s a valid response to the trauma Laura put her through, and she’s allowed to exclude her mother from her life. Similarly, Wren is allowed to invite Laura back in, and to deal with what that means for their future as a family.

Emotional truth, y’all. It’s strong stuff.

Of course, relationship drama is hardly the only thing in Cath’s life. She’s also got her deep love of Simon Snow, boy wizard and cultural phenomenon--and damn, is it ever a thing of beauty. Rowell perfectly captures the experience of loving a book (or a movie, or a TV show) with all your heart. Simon and Baz, his nemesis (or boyfriend, depending on whether you’re reading canon or Cath’s fanfic), give Cath a framework upon which to stretch the world. She relates so much of her everyday life to the second life she has within the Simon Snow fandom, and to her deep connection to the characters.

I’m sure anyone who’s ever been more than a passing fan of anything will find this familiar.

Now, this is the part where I admit to my utter lack of involvement in all things fanfic. I wrote a bit of Star Wars stuff when I was younger2, but I’ve seldom read anyone else's fic because it scares me. I think I’m too much a slave to canon to ever really jump that hurdle.3

That said, I love the idea of fanfic, and I love how Cath talks about it. So far as she’s concerned, fanfic is inherently postmodern4. It acknowledges all potential situations at once via an ever-shifting array of stories in which a multitude of writers reimagine the same characters in different circumstances. An author needn’t stick to a canon they established in their previous stories, either. Cath can write two fics that directly contradict each other, and that’s just fine and dandy with everybody.

Rowell captures the sense of possibility fic embodies. She also gives a nice nod to how much it means to those who read it, and to how awesome it is for a writer to discover someone who enjoys their work. The scene where Cath meets a fan of her fanwork is one of my favourites.

I love how she deals with the whole fanfic-versus-original fiction question, too. Cath is scared to write original stories as she feels most comfortable working with established characters, but her Fiction-Writing professor strongly encourages her to branch out and create something entirely her own. Her anxieties as she tackles this process are believable and heart wrenching. It’s always clear, too, that there’s no shame in it if Cath decides to stick to fanfic outside of class. The world needs writers of all varieties, and choosing fic over original work doesn’t mean Cath can’t make an impact on anyone. Likewise, writing original work doesn’t mean abandoning fic or ignoring the effect it's had on her life.

Oh, friends, the whole book is wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! I can’t get it out of my head, and I daresay I don’t want to.

If you’ve ever been a fan, or a writer, or a human being struggling with the world, you need to read FANGIRL.


While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read FANGIRL, you can try:

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  1. Jenny questioned whether we really needed multiple Rainbows in the world, but I stand by my original assertion. Granted, my own name is Memory and if I ever ended up with a kid, I’d probably name her Moonbeam. So, you know, I’m not the most objective observer here.
  2. It was basically all original character stuff that took place in my own version of the Star Wars Extended Universe, with plenty of stop-offs in other locales, and I never posted it on FanFiction.net or anywhere like that. Mostly, I shared it with a couple of friends who were invested in the story and helped me create some of the characters via a role playing game we ran.

    Oh! And I once wrote a Death fic (SANDMAN Death, not any-one-of-a-million-other-properties Death) that I quite liked. Maybe I'll share it someday, if I can find it and it still meets with my approval.

  3. Plus, most of the properties I love deeply enough to warrant a potential search for fanfic are TV shows, and I have this weird thing about mixing media. It feels strange to read a story about the Doctor, or Buffy, or Sam and Dean, because I normally watch them. I’m willing to delve into comics here and there since they have a visual component, but prose is right out. I don’t even read the official novels.

    Some friends have sent me fanfic recs, though, and I swear I will try them someday. I’ve got a link to a DOCTOR WHO fic in my e-mail, courtesy of Kristina, and I hereby promise Renay I will someday read the Dean-turns-into-an-octopus story.

  4. Okay, Cath never says that. I’m saying that.


  1. I would TOTALLY read some Death fanfic by you. In fact that would probably make my month :D

    Anyway, this book! So perfect <3

    1. I'll see if I can dig out the Death fanfic. It was a couple of computers ago, so I might only have it in hard copy now.

  2. I am hoping to sneak this in before the end of the year, but who knows... Glad so many people are enjoying it!

    1. It's totally worth rearranging your reading schedule. Just saying. :)

  3. Love. Yes. I 100 percent agree with this. It's such a touching, lovely book and I felt, completely, the emotional truth of so much of what Cath was experiencing. I also want Levi to be my book boyfriend, but that's an entirely different thing :)

    1. I still can't stop obsessing over Levi and the emotional truth. So perfect.

  4. I've heard the "She's writing my life" response a few times in regards to Rowell's books. I was kinda meh about Attachments but I'm willing to give her another go.