by Rainbow Rowell (Macmillan, 2013)
Fangirl isn’t your usual teenage romance. While it does follow the everlasting formula of “girl-meets-boy, they’re-happy, everything-goes-wrong, then-everything-comes-right”, it also charts a tumultuous year in the life of a socially-inept teenager who is happier in the land of fictional characters than in the real world.
Meet Cather Avery, misfit and purveyor of copious amounts of fan-fiction. And yes, that really is her name—her mother didn’t know she was having twins and so shared out the one name she already had, Catherine. Which means Cath has a twin, an identical twin, called Wren (Cather-Wren, got it?). Cath and Wren have always done everything together, but as they set out on their university life, Wren wants to break free and be her own person, not part of the Cath–Wren double-act.
Thus, Cath finds herself in a strange place, with a stranger as a roommate instead of the sister she’s shared a room, well, everything, with for all of her eighteen years. Given her extreme social anxiety, she is too terrified to make friends—or even find her way to the dining hall (and ends up rationing her stock of protein bars instead). To add to the awkwardness, her roommate Reagan’s boyfriend Levi always seems to be hanging around in room. Forget boys, Cath would rather not deal with people at all!
The only bright spots in her life are the junior-level Fiction Writing course that she’s been allowed to join, a class normally not open to first-years (or freshmen, as they call them there), and her Simon Snow fandom. Simon Snow is the Harry Potter equivalent in the Fangirl universe, and Cath is the ultimate fan. In fact, she is also the author of a serious work of fan-fiction, an alternate eighth and final book of the series that she is racing to finish before the author, Gemma T. Leslie, comes out with the real one. On the fan-fiction communities, Cath is known as Magicath, a hugely popular writer with an enviable fan base, all of whom are eagerly waiting for her take on the end of the series. In Cath’s fan-fic universe, Simon is gay and falls in love with his nemesis, Baz! The only thing that’s missing is Magicath’s writing partner, Wrenegade.
Meanwhile, Wren takes to university life a bit too enthusiastically—parties, alcohol, fake ID, et al. As Cath slowly starts to settle in, with Reagan taking her under her wings to an extent, Wren seems to move further and further away, till she seems a stranger to Cath. Cath herself makes a few friends herself. There’s Nick, her partner in her fiction-writing class, and she starts getting closer to Levi, who, it turns out, is not Reagan’s boyfriend after all. She also catches the eye of Professor Piper, her writing instructor. Just when things seem to be going well, everything falls apart.
Cath makes the mistake of submitting a Simon and Baz fan-fiction for her fiction-writing assignment to earn Professor Piper’s wrath, as she doesn’t see fan-fiction as “real” writing. Wren spirals downwards with a serious drinking problem and gets alcohol poisoning. Cath’s father has a manic episode and ends up in hospital. And the twins’ long-lost mother, who had walked out on them when they were eight, wants to make contact.
Fangirl rakes up multiple issues in its wake—it deals with family, friendship, love, loyalty and honesty. You also get a fascinating insight into the world of fan-fiction. Cath’s impassioned defence of it being “real” writing is interesting, though one can’t help but be frustrated at her resistance to trying to write original stuff. What is somewhat unbelievable is that someone can churn out copious amounts of fan-fiction as she does without writing—pardon my French—crap. But then, the hordes of fans online tell a completely different tale.
Oddly, the romance is the weakest link in the story. The developing friendship between Levi and Cath, which turns to attraction later, is sweet, but eventually Levi turns out to be something of a teenage girl’s dream of what a perfect boyfriend should be like rather than a believable person. There are some rather clunky romantic scenes and a lot of sitting in Levi’s “lap” that made one wonder if was a euphemism of some sort. Also, the ending is somewhat odd—I find it hard to imagine almost-grown-up women crying over the release of a book, even if it is a series-ending-Harry-Potter-equivalent.
The excerpts from the make-believe Simon Snow books and from Magicath’s fan-fiction were an amusing aside, but don’t really add anything to the story. It did, however, make me interested enough to rush out and buy Carry On upon finishing Fangirl. Rainbow Rowell is a fine writer, so, nitpicks aside, this is a decent if somewhat bland read. And if you’ve ever been a shy, socially awkward teenager, you will find yourself somewhere in this story.