I never wrote much fanfic. Or read much of it. I tried. I consider myself a “fan” of many things. But I don’t like playing in others’ universes that much. And when I do (such as when I do my chatroom-based Star Trek roleplaying every week), I make up my own characters. Nevertheless, I understand why people like Cath Avery of Fangirl are so fascinated with writing in worlds others created. Rainbow Rowell takes this idea and spins it into a YA novel that’s on the more “adult” end of the age spectrum. Cath and her twin sister are off to college, and while Wren is ready and willing to jump into the deep end of classes, dating, and parties, Cath just wants to sit in her dorm room and write Simon Snow fic. Like you do.
Fangirl fully won me over with a simple line: "I have a right to get upset about upsetting things."
Cath says this when Wren tells her to calm down, and it pulled me out of the narrative—but in a good way. It’s just so true. When people are upset, very often our first reaction is to tell them to “calm down,” and we mean it in the nicest, most helpful way. Yet some subvert this phrase and twist it to mean, “just accept this.” It’s easy to fall into the trap of not becoming upset—at least, not visibly upset—simply because one doesn’t want to inconvenience others.
Watching Cath’s development as a person is the main pleasure of the novel. She starts out as an extreme case—and, to be honest, a little annoying for all that. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t identify a little with Cath—we both love writing and staying home, for one thing—but I think it’s more that Cath and I share an enjoyment of an internal life. Reagan, Levi, and Wren all look for external stimuli to validate and energize their existence; Cath is fine by herself, exploring worlds of her own (or, more accurately, worlds of Gemma T. Leslie’s). For Cath and me both, the outside world is often more an inconvenience to be borne, an obstacle to what’s happening in our mind.
I’m not saying that’s better, mind you. But it is different. And that’s the key to getting along with introverts: don’t tell us we’re broken or abnormal. Just smile when we tell you we’re too tired to hang out, and go have fun with your more extroverted friends. We’ll be around another time.
This book is about Cath struggling to find her voice. At the beginning she is nervous to the point of illness, practically neurotic in her desire to avoid strangers and agoraphobic in her behaviour. I can’t go into the psychology and how this is all a result of her and Wren getting messed up because her mother left—I’m not a psychologist. But I like how Rowell starts with Cath clearly in a place of great fragility, and gradually, Cath changes. She gets to know new people. She experiments with having a proper boyfriend for the first time. She starts voicing her own desires, her own needs, and actually gets properly angry.
I like that there are few trite resolutions here. Cath and Levi’s relationship doesn’t speak to me that much. But I like that Cath and Wren end up simply “OK” and that Cath and her mother don’t really resolve things. The end of this book reliably coincides with the end of Cath’s first year at college, and Rowell doesn’t mince her words or promise that a few scenes could make everything better.
I’m a little sad we don’t get to hear how Cath ends Carry On, though. I’ll read Rowell’s version (which apparently is not exactly Cath’s version), but the ending is probably one of my less favourite parts of Fangirl.
While this isn’t a book that I’ll be re-reading often or recommending at the top of my lungs like I do with some YA, it’s a steady-paced and thoughtful story. It’s a nice break from science-fiction and fantasy YA that I often read, and I thoroughly enjoyed ripping through this more hefty novel in a weekend. Rowell has talents both for characterization and dialogue. Her characters feel real, and talk like people with real pet peeves and problems might. Fangirl, despite its title, is not about Cath’s obsession with Simon Snow. That’s just one facet of a much more complicated but intriguing story.