Fangirl is the story of Cath Avery, a prolific and popular writer of fanfiction based on the novels about Simon Snow, which is a Harry-Potter-esque series. The story is interspersed with pertinent segments both from the Simon Snow books and from Cath’s ongoing installations of fan fiction (posted under her pen name, MagiCath). In Cath’s fan-book, called Carry On, Simon and his nemesis Baz become partners, and then, more than partners.
Cath is in her first semester at the University of Nebraska, and is rooming for the first time with someone other than her twin Wren, who is also at the school. Her new roommate Reagan has a sort-of boyfriend named Levi, who is a warm fuzzy complement to Reagan’s brusque edges. But Reagan decides that Cath, who has a bit of social phobia and won’t even go to the cafeteria to eat, needs a friend, and she will be that friend, and she takes Cath under her wing:
“‘I feel sorry for you, and I’m going to be your friend.’
‘I don’t want to be your friend,’ Cath said as sternly as she could. I like that we’re not friends.’
‘Me, too,’ Reagan said. ‘I’m sorry you ruined it by being so pathetic.’”
Levi feels the need to take care of Cath as well, and soon she has two very good friends. Still, the world she most prefers is that of fan fiction, where “you get to play inside somebody else’s universe. Rewrite the rules.”
In her creative writing class, Cath turns in a piece of her fan fiction, but the professor refuses to accept it. She, Professor Piper, thinks Cath has real talent, but wants her to write her own story. Cath objects that she doesn’t think she is cut out for fiction writing. In a clever allusion, her teacher, Professor Piper, rejoins:
“What are you talking about? You’re exactly cut out for it. You’re a Butterick pattern, Cath – this is what you were meant to do.”
Still Cath resists, explaining:
“I don’t want to write my own fiction. I don’t want to write my own characters or my own worlds – I don’t care about them. … I’d rather pour myself into a world I love and understand than try to make something up out of nothing.”
What I love about this book, and about Rainbow Rowell in general:
The dialogue is wonderful. It’s real, it’s clever (wait: do those two go together?), it’s charming, funny, poignant, and makes you not only feel you know the characters, but that you want to take them into your lives and keep them there. Some of my favorite passages include these:
Cath debates with Wren how to conclude her story about Simon and Baz, and Wren objects to her proposed less-than-happy ending:
“‘Happily ever after, or even just together ever after, is not cheesy,’ Wren said. ‘It’s the noblest, like, the most courageous thing two people can shoot for.’”
Cath’s rumination about kissing:
“Kissed. Cath loved that word. She used it sparingly in her fic, just because it felt so powerful. it felt like kissing to say it. Well done, English language.”
And this wonderful exchange between Cath and Levi:
Levi: “I just want to know—are you rooting for me? Are you hoping I pull this off?”
Cath’s eyes settled on his, tentatively, like they’d fly away if he moved.
She nodded her head.
The right side of his mouth pulled up.
“I’m rooting for you,” she whispered.”
The coming-of-age aspects are so realistically and warmly depicted. Cath not only needs to establish her identity apart from her sister, but to come to terms with the best way to have a relationship with each of her parents, both of whom could compromise her stability and future. And finally, she needs to figure out what it means to have a relationship. When we first meet Cath, she has a boyfriend, Abel, but Wren doesn’t think he quite fits the definition:
“‘He’s a perfectly good boyfriend,’ Cath would say.
‘he’s an end table,’ Wren would answer.
‘He’s always there for me.’
‘…to set magazines on.’”
Rowell shows us alternatives to a relationship with an end table, giving us several in both real life and in the story-within-the-story that are characterized by tenderness, nurturing, honesty, respect, and a bit of chemistry.
The characters are so lovable, and constructed with depth and dimension. Reagan may be brusque, but she has a great heart. Levi doesn’t fit conventional stereotypes, but is absolutely wonderful. Cath is so real, and so courageous in so many ways in spite of her social phobias. In some ways Wren serves mainly as a foil for Cath, to show how Cath could have adjusted to their twinness and parental problems, but didn’t.
The theme of what constitutes “legitimate” fiction. Speculative stories come from a variety of places but in reality only reconfigure a small number of story arcs. If you draw on the elements of your own experiences and switch them up to create a fresh and original piece of fiction, is that so much different from drawing upon characters from another book and switching up their experiences and relationships?
Evaluation: Once again, this author has come up with a book that is touching, clever, funny, heartwarming, and imaginative. I said in a review of one of her previous books (Attachments, see my review here), that I wanted to take the book to bed with me. I think I’m going to have a bed full of Rainbow Rowell books.
Published by St. Martin’s Griffin, a division of Macmillan, 2013