Rainbow Rowell’s new YA novel, Fangirl, will paint a distressingly close-to-home picture for many Harry Potter-era geeks. Complete with novel-length fanfiction, navigating first-times with only erotic slash as a guidebook, and social anxieties aplenty, Fangirl is as funny as it is embarrassing, and as charming as it is true-to-geek-life.
Fangirl follows the typical plot arch set by young adult romcoms everywhere—girl meets boy, girl and boy have a series of misunderstandings, girl’s family just doesn’t understand, and finally the girl comes of age (and hopefully gets some on the side). Enter, however, Simon Snow: a fictional YA book series a-la-Harry Potter, wherein magician and orphan Simon Snow battles his way through evil magic and a dark and frustrating roommate to boot. Cath, Fangirl’s protagonist, is a Simon Snow fanatic. When she isn’t writing fanfiction, she’s thinking about it, and she is perfectly happy that way; until, of course, her world starts changing around her.
[Please note that this review reveals some light spoilers in the process of discussing the plot of the novel.]
Cath’s twin sister, Wren, is a fangirl just like her—they even used to co-write fanfic, back in the earlier days of Simon Snow fandom. The girls are inseparable like twins are supposed to be, and are that much closer in their roles as caretaker of their single, neurotic father. With the first year of college in the foreground, though, and the last book in the Simon Snow series close on the horizon, it is the end of an era.
Cath doesn’t understand why her other half has cut her hair, or why she wants to live in separate dorms—to make matters worse, Wren starts to prefer boys and alcohol and even makes fun of Simon Snow. When Wren reaches out to the twins’ estranged mother, it is the last straw. College life is already nerve-wracking enough, but without her sister and best friend at her side, Cath is completely lost.
Or, at least, she thinks she’s lost. In reality, Cath is muddling her way through life with a supporting cast of characters that she is not-quite-ready to call her friends. Her roommate, Reagan, is kind of a bad ass. She smokes and likes to make fun of Cath and her weird, gay Simon Snow posters; but, she also makes Cath eat dinner with her and invites her to parties even though she knows she’ll turn her down. Reagan’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, Levi, is a constant, cheerful presence in their room, but Cath can’t tell whether he likes her or if he just likes everyone (spoiler: it’s both). Cath even ends up in writing sessions every week with a guy from her creative writing class, though she can’t tell whether or not he likes her or if he’s just using her for her mad editing skills (spoiler: it’s the latter).
By the end of her first semester, Cath doesn’t know if she can take it anymore. Her dad is having a manic meltdown and her sister doesn’t seem to care. Cath’s creative writing professor failed her on an assignment, saying that fanfiction is plagiarism. But she just doesn’t care about her own life—she has to finish writing her epic Simon Snow fanfic before the final book comes out. And then she makes the terrible mistake of kissing Levi. It’s terrible because Levi likes everyone, including, apparently, the girl he kisses at a party, right in front of Cath.
So, Cath decides not to go back to school. Staying at home to take care of her dad and finish her fic makes so much more sense—it’s more comfortable, and it feels right. It doesn’t last long, though (because putting your life on hold never does). When she gets back to campus, Cath’s creative writing professor starts to hound her for her final short story, tells her she’s got to start with something “personal.” How is she supposed to write something personal when her personal life makes her want to crawl into a hole and hide? And how do you tell your professor you have thousands of online fans counting on you?
With Levi on the periphery of every other scene, Fangirl is most certainly a love story, but it is more than that. It is a much-needed exploration of living as an introvert in an extrovert’s world, and of a young person’s willingness to accept others by accepting herself. Cath is a frustrating character in all the right ways. Awkward and oblivious, she bumbles through most social interactions with all the grace of an internet-induced hermit. Her relationship with Levi goes beyond romantic entanglement, too—Levi doesn’t read much, even has a learning disorder. In one of the novel’s final scenes, we find Cath reading the final Simon Snow novel out loud to Levi, desperately avoiding internet spoilers because of how long it’s taking. Accepting Levi—accepting people that are different or outside of her comfort zone—affords Cath a wealth of new experiences, even experiences of a part of her life that she had once viewed as just-for-her. It turns out, Rainbow Rowell seems to be saying, that everything we do is interpersonal—even how we experience so-called “escapism.”
The novel itself is interspersed with selections from the Simon Snow series and from Cath’s own fanfiction, lending even more validity to the form and function of fandom. Rowell has done her research. If you’ve read your share of fic—especially of the wizarding variety—you’ll recognize a lot of tropes, including the ones that make fanfic fun and readable. By the end, the fanfic starts to blend with the excerpts from the book, just like they both become a part of the narrative of Cath’s life. By the time Cath starts writing her semi-autobiographical short story for her professor, readers have already seen how her personal life influences her fanfic. More importantly, though, we see how Cath is able to come to terms with her life through her understanding and experience of fiction.
Rowell understands something vital in her novel, and that is that fandom is so much more than escapism—it is, whether conscious or unconsciously—a way for folks to interact with their surroundings. Fangirl may end with Cath learning not to use fanfic as a crutch, but at no point is there a choice between “fiction” and “the real world” (however much Cath might perceive one). Cath, like so many fans of my own generation, is passionate and active in her experience of media—the trick is in applying that to the rest of her relationships.
Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl is a cute and poignant read for fangirls and fanboys of all ages. Fans will recognize popular fanartist Ginger Haze’s fabulous illustration on the cover. What’s more, they’ll recognize themselves in the pages—for better or worse.
Fangirl is available September 10th from St Martin’s Press.
Emily Nordling is a fangirl from Louisville, Kentucky. She thrives primarily on tea, books, and justice.