Review: FANGIRL, by Rainbow Rowell
Review from Alison Doherty
St. Martins Press, 2013
Looking over all the books I read in 2013, Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell is the one I can’t get out of my head. As both a reader and a writer this book (figuratively) blew me away, and despite two rereads of the novel I’m still not entirely certain why.
I think a short summary might offer some clues. Goodreads calls Fangirl “A coming-of-age tale of fan fiction, family and first love,” then goes on to describe the plight of college freshman and Simon Snow fan Cath. Cath is internet famous for writing fanfics about the Harry Potter-like fictional world. When Cath’s twin sister moves on from their previously joint obsession to experience a world of frat boys and dorm parties, Cath feels left behind. Enter problems with her grumpy roommate, a writing professor that wants her to create original stories, her father who’s experiencing more than empty nest syndrome and … well you get the picture. Cath has a lot on her plate, and she’s unsure if she can inhabit the real world as well as the world of Simon Snow. Without the support of her sister, she’d not sure which one she even wants.
In English classes and creative writing courses, students are taught to disavow clichés within literature. There is a lot in Fangirl, and in the description above, that feels if not cliché than at least very familiar. The Bildungsroman genre is full of girls who are forced to choose between childhood games/ preoccupations and the pursuits of adults, or the lives experienced within their immediate families and existing with the values of society at large. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that throughout the book readers will see Cath learning lessons and through those lessons adjusting to life in college better.
However, something keeps the book from being boring or done before. That something is the details Rowell imbibes into each page of the book. Details that surpass the types of drinks Cath prefers from Starbucks or the posters on her walls or her predilection for sweaters that approaches the mania she saves for Simon Snow: although all of those details are also worked into the character description.
It is the details worked into the plot that make Fangirl feel both unique and timely. While a coming of age novel of family and first love is nothing new, one based on fan fiction certainly is. The prevalence of internet and fan culture, along with the fact that this shy, straight, Midwestern girl is writing gay fan fiction (imagine a Harry Potter dating a Ron/Draco hybrid), make Fangirl feel like it couldn’t have been written in any other time.
The marketing and creation of the book also have strong connections to contemporary culture. Fangirl was chosen as the inaugural book for the tumblr book club and has inspired a plethora of fanart on the site. Web comic artist, Noelle Stevenson, designed the book’s cover. Rowell first created the story through the increasingly popular and internet based NaNoWriMo.
So maybe some of these details are the reason this book excited me so much. Or maybe the answer could be as simple as good story and strong writing. It could also be because there are lots of people who understand being highly anxious going to college and deeply missing the excitement of the Harry Potter years. Whatever the combination, one thing is for sure: the book is inspiring a lot of buzz within both reading and writing communities.