Book Review: ‘Fangirl’ by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl (Image Credit: Rainbow Rowell)

Fangirl (Image Credit: Rainbow Rowell)

Okay you guys, I usually try to keep gushing to a minimum and be semi-objective with my reviews, but let’s just put that on hold for a second so I can say: I loved, loved, loved Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. I’m a little surprised how much I liked it, actually – while I enjoyed Rowell’s previous books, Attachments and Eleanor & Park, something about Fangirl just felt right, like all the different elements that I liked from the previous books came together just perfectly in a contemporary setting and it just worked.

Fangirl is about Cath, an introverted and painfully unsocial teenager starting her freshman year of college. She’s thrown totally out of her comfort zone, especially when her twin sister Wren decides to live in a different dorm and leave Cath to fend for herself with a potentially hostile roommate, Reagan.  Cath’s comfort is writing – specifically, writing Simon Snow fan fiction. While Simon Snow was totally made up for this book, it’s obviously a spin on Harry Potter. Cath writes wildly popular fanfic – slash stories about Simon Snow and his roommate/nemesis Baz – and prefers to live inside the fictional world of Simon & Baz as opposed to interacting with actual humans.

As the story unfolds in Fangirl, we see Cath being forced to come out of her shell and face many of her social fears. Reagan, who I totally loved, turns out to actually be the most awesome roommate a girl like Cath could have hoped for, and helps Cath acclimate to college life. Cath faces many challenges – she worries about her mentally ill father at home alone, she misses spending time with Wren and hates how they are growing apart, she struggles with a writing professor who doesn’t think fan fiction is real writing, she is forced to face her mom issues for the first time in a decade, and she learns that some cute boys are trouble and some are worth the effort. It’s a lot, but every minute of Cath’s experiences felt so real, and I was rooting for her to figure herself out despite all these challenges.

I can certainly find little things to nitpick about Fangirl, but it would be just that – nitpicking for the sake of nitpicking. So I’m not going to. I’m going to talk about all the reasons I loved this book, starting with the wonderful characters and, more importantly character development. Rowell clearly has a gift for writing introverted main characters; people who feel like outsiders or are insecure in the “real” world. While Cath is sometimes frustrating with her social hurdles, her timid personality was actually very relatable. While I’m now older and wiser and don’t get as hung up on these types of things, as an introvert myself I can remember being in Cath’s position and feeling a lot of the things she did. I love that while Cath is uncomfortable around new people, she’s actually a very smart, funny, and engaging person when she does decide to open up. That feels much more realistic to me than the caricature of a socially awkward person you often see in fiction.

Aside from Cath, there are a plethora of other characters to love in Fangirl – Reagan, who I mentioned earlier, got major kudos from me for being so mature and empathetic when she and Cath encountered hurdles in their friendship. Reagan also tended to be the voice of reason, saying the things Cath maybe didn’t want to hear, but definitely needed to hear. And of course Levi, Reagan’s eternally happy tagalong, was a charming ray of optimism throughout the book, and even Cath’s slightly manic father was portrayed so lovingly that I found him and his quest for the perfect Gravioli ad campaign completely adorable.

Rowell has a tendency toward somewhat odd word choice, particularly in her descriptions. Sometimes she’ll throw together words that seem like a strange pairing, or she’ll make an unusual reference or comparison. While in her previous books I occasionally found this distracting, in Fangirl it’s more subtle, woven in to the narrative so that it is unique without taking you out of the story. Instead of being a distraction, these slightly odd choices really made Cath’s voice bright and distinctive. I also liked how Rowell slipped in a lot of fanfiction terms without worrying too much about explaining them. It felt natural for Cath to be using these words, and it was a nice way for Rowell to pay homage to the culture that inspired this story. The fanfic aspect of this book didn’t feel like a gimmick; it felt like an authentic part of Cath’s life.

While this really has very little to do with the quality of the book, I still have to mention how much I loved the ongoing references to QuikTrip – QT to those of us in the know! It really is the best gas station in the world (with the possible exception of Buc-ees). So of course I was happy to see it in Fangirl – one time it was even in the same paragraph with a reference to Grey Gardens; be still, my beating heart!

More than anything I just really enjoyed seeing Cath’s evolution and growth from the first chapter to the last. There are millions of coming-of-age stories in the universe, but Cath’s unique perspective and Rowell’s engaging writing really make this one stand out. And another great thing about Fangirl is that despite being about teenagers, it doesn’t feel particularly YA – this is a book any audience can enjoy. I don’t doubt that there are people out there who won’t totally get this book (especially ones with no idea what it feels like to be socially awkward), but I think those who do will love it, and those who don’t can still appreciate the engaging characters and lovely storytelling.

 

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