I'm going to go ahead and say from the start that Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl didn't work for me and that in order to explain why that's the case, this review will be spoiler heavy. I don't think any of the spoilers will ruin the reading for anyone who picks up the book at all, but I also want to be fair in giving that head's up.
Cather and sister Wren are beginning their first year of college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln -- a few hours west of their home town of Omaha -- and while Wren is excited for the experience, Cath couldn't be dreading it more. Not only does it mean adjustment, but it also means that she's going to have less time to devote to the fandom. That was and is her biggest passion.
Cath writes fanfic about Simon Snow, the fictional lead character of a series of wildly popular children's books (think Harry Potter). But she not only writes it; she's well-known and popular as a fanfic writer, and she's earned legions of fans who eagerly await her next installment of the story she's developed between Simon and secondary male character Baz. She's built herself a world all her own in the fandom.
But while Fandom about fandom and fanfiction, it's really not just about that. Cath has to learn to navigate begin in a new place, in a roommate situation that has her learning to adjust to the quirks and charms of a new roommate who isn't Wren. Because Wren doesn't want to live with her. Wren wants something new. Wren may or may not have a few problems of her own drinking, for one, which causes her to end up in the hospital one night. Wren's also been known to be friendly with more than a single boy, too. In other words, she's a bit like a stereotypical college freshman who is indulging in her first taste of freedom and adulthood. She's exploring, making choices -- even if they aren't always good for her.
Then there's Levi, the cute-haired boy who may or may not be in a relationship with Cath's roommate Reagan. Then there's Cath's father, who suffers from depression at home. Then there's Cath and Wren's mother who stepped out of their lives years ago -- it was that departure of her mother that led Cath to the fandom in the first place. And then there's the advanced-level Fiction-Writing course that Cath was let into and that she's managed to earn an incomplete in (though thankfully, her professor wants to give her an extension and a second chance since she shows real promise). There's the boy she's been partnered with in the class, too, who may or may not be stealing Cath's writing and passing it off as his.
Can Cath possibly continue her streak with the fandom? Can she come to terms with who she is in the midst of the fandom? Or does she need to come to terms with herself in spite of it? And what happens if people are on to her? With scads of fans, someone on campus HAS to know she's the person behind Carry On.
Over the course of this single freshman year in Cath's life -- one which we're reminded again and again drags on like a lifetime in a way that no other year does -- so much and so little happens at the same time. We're given passages between the chapters of Cath's story that showcase the original Simon Snow text and the fanfic that Cath herself has written.
We don't actually get to see the fandom.
We see Cath's writing, but in no way does Cath's writing actually showcase the importance of the fandom to her nor her notoriety within the fandom. We know OF the people who admire her work and seek it out. But we don't know them. And we don't know the value of them to her because we never actually see it. Instead, we're giving the very superficial elements of it -- the writing itself. The heft of meaning here is removed because we're told, not shown, what it is.
What Rowell does in Fangirl is offer too many unsatisfying plot threads on a very shallow level, and it's presented in such a way that Cath herself is never a complete character. There's not only a lack of an arc to her (again, we know OF things because it's told to readers, but we don't actually know them because we don't get to see or experience them along with Cath), but her character is inconsistent. She's unlikable and not in a way that's actually interesting. She's cold and aloof, and she's judgmental. Obviously these elements make her real and they make her relatable in many ways (I saw a lot of myself in Cath and many others will too -- particularly the inconsistencies, the anxieties, and the sometimes-borderline paranoia she experiences in her new world) but she never is able to give us more than a passing glance at why she is this way.
She just is.
In many ways, the exploration of fandom is meant to give us further insight into Cath and her behavior except it never does. Where we could get to know her through her fanfic -- just like her followers do -- we don't get to because she never shares with us why she continues to seek and validate her own identity through it.
We see the fiction. We don't see the heart.
I never bought the romance or chemistry between Cath and Levi because I never saw her actually seeing him as someone more than simply his good hair and his always-there presence. He does a lot of nice things for her, but she never seems all that into it. In many ways, she almost expects it. It was surprising to me he continued to seek her out when she was so cold and distant. And it doubly surprised me that she had TWO boys who were interested in her.
Maybe part of the problem is we never know the stakes here. Are there any? At least in Cath's own world, there really aren't. If she gives up the fandom, she loses personal fulfillment. But she would find it at college because there is a world of college to fulfill her. If she's found out as being a huge fanfic writer, what happens? She earns notoriety on campus -- and there is no possible way that there are not other fans of Simon Snow on campus who wouldn't seek her out to develop some sort of social group around their shared passion.
This leads me to the biggest issues in the book, which are the underdeveloped plot points that could have been either dug into further or left out all together. Did Cath and Wren's father need to be seriously unstable? It makes sense, but the turn around and recovery is near-instant. One minute he's hospitalized, and not too long later, he's stable and fine. Likewise, why the sudden reemergence of mom? It seems out of left field that mom would want to suddenly know her girls again, after being out of their entire teen lives. And the turnaround there is also instant. While it's believable so much could and does happen in a year, the way these two events played out was superficial and because they're so big and complex, the surface-level treatment makes them easy to write off.
Wren develops a drinking problem in college, and it's when she's hospitalized that Cather finally has to come face to face with the mom she's been avoiding (and frankly, I was team Cath here on completely avoiding the mother who was out of her life, even though the story read in a way that suggested she should feel guilty and bad about not wanting to reestablish that connection). Since Cath and Wren aren't living together, there's been a giant wedge driven between them at school -- almost to the point they don't even know one another. But we never get to know Wren except through Cath's skewed perception, and it's this one-sided, weak development that in many ways is how Cath herself is propped up as a character. Wren drinks. Wren sleeps with boys. Wren gets hospitalized. Cath, on the other hand, lives in her head, in her fanfic, avoids social interaction, and nothing "bad" happens to her. But with the hospitalization, their relationship is patched up because they're able to "bond" over their thoughts about having mom back in their lives. It's a way-too-cleanly-resolved scene that begged for much more development -- or for being left out all together.
So with all of that going on, there's another wrench thrown in, and that is that Levi has a learning disorder where he is unable to read. He needs to listen to people reading to him in order to grasp knowledge.
If you're keeping tally at this point, we have the mentally ill father, the absent-but-seeking-connection mother, the sisters who are drifting apart, the sister with a drinking problem, the boy from her fiction class who may be stealing her writing, the teacher who is a stock character that "believes in Cath's potential as a writer," and the potential boyfriend who has a learning disorder. None of these threads alone are bad. It's when they're all thrown into one story -- even if it's meant to be a way of explaining how freshman year at college can feel like an eternity -- that things become unbelievable. They're shallowly developed and unsatisfying. But worse, they don't contribute anything to Cath's character arc.
As mentioned earlier, Cath is inconsistent in the story. She's at one minute very "worldly" -- she talks about how she grew up in the most culturally-rich, ethnically-diverse area of Omaha and she quickly judges her school not for her because of how many blonde, white girls wander around. But then down the road, she talks about how she doesn't know what a ranch is nor does she have any concept of country life. Yes, Omaha is a city. However, Omaha is saddled between Nebraska and Iowa, which base their livelihoods on farming and ranching. If she's so rich culturally, it's shocking to see what she does and doesn't know. She's sheltered but she's not. She writes gay fanfic, which suggests an open-mindedness to her, but she IS so judgmental externally -- she's near shaming people who choose to enjoy sex and she makes a rape joke early on with Levi that felt inappropriate at the moment and even more inappropriate as their relationship actually develops. And her voice and perspective doesn't change. It's one-dimensional.
What of fandom here, then? I'm left wondering if Rowell's point that fandom can be positive and fulfilling and exciting is actually lost here and whether or not she unintentionally makes the opposite point because she doesn't allow readers to see what it adds to Cath's life. We only know the surface. We never know the depth, even though we know there is depth (and how I wanted that depth -- I don't know fandom, but I know the value it has added to many people's lives and...why wasn't that here?). Likewise, the passages of Simon Snow and the fanfic were, frankly, boring. Again, it goes back to the fact we don't know what the fandom is to Cath or what she's getting from it. So I wasn't sure what I was supposed to be getting from it either. It read a bit like creatively-packaged info dumping.
Part of me wonders if there is an in-crowd to this book. Because I'm not in the fandom, because I don't read fanfiction, am I just an outsider to it? If I don't "get" it without seeing it, is the book not meant for me as a reader? That seems like a huge and unfair leap -- and I doubt that's the intention here. But I can't help feeling like because I'm not one of the cool crowd -- that I'm not Cath or like Cath -- then, well, too bad.
The editor of this book called it "Literature with a capital L" in her buzz session at BEA, but I couldn't disagree more. This isn't spectacular writing. At times, it's clumsy and awkward, and there are lengthy passages which don't add anything to the story. There's nothing Literary here. And that's not to suggest there's not a readership to this book (there certainly is!) nor that the writing is bad (it's not). Rather, it's to say this is no Literature. The story is told through third person point of view, which almost makes the writing tougher to buy as literary because we're not getting it direct from Cath herself. There's a step back and a removal from the immediacy of story. So the weak turns of phrase aren't actually because it's who Cath is or how she receives and perceives her world first-hand.
I'd hoped for a more open ending, one which would suggest that things aren't neatly packaged nor wrapped up, but I got the neat bow. It in many ways is precisely what Cath said she hoped to deliver to her own readers, and while it could have been satisfying for the readers of Fangirl to get it, because there are so many plot threads too neatly tied up already, it was more of a let down that a satisfying resolution.
Though this book is being sold as YA -- and it will certainly appeal to a lot of teen readers and YA readers more broadly -- this doesn't read like a YA book. It reads like an adult book. It reminds me of chick lit, and that's not meant in a mean or belittling sense. I spent a long time thinking about what would have made this YA as opposed to adult, and I think it comes down to this: the YA story here was how Cath got into the fandom after her mother's sudden departure when she was a teenager. The YA of it would be seeing Cath find a safe space in this world and developing the friendships and connections she does in Simon Snow's fan world. But instead, we get the well after in this book. We see Cath years after she's developed this presence. We don't see development therein. We don't see a "coming of age" or "coming to understanding" of the value of this fandom because we don't actually see the fandom or the world therein. We see Cath in her first year of college -- a snap shot into her life -- and we see the romance developing between her and Levi at the forefront. Again, not to belittle the story. It's not. The YA book was elsewhere in the story, in those flash backs and in the back story. What we got was the adult book.
There will be plenty of people who love this book and I see why. But this book and the writing are imperfect and left me with far more questions than answers -- and not in the way I like to leave a story with questions. This left me wanting, rather than satiated. I'm sure those readers for whom this book is ideal and who "get" it will overlook the issues without problem.
Pass Fangirl off to readers who want a story about fanfiction and fandom. Pass it off, too, to readers who want books set in college or about figuring out who and what you are when you're put into a new situation. Readers who liked Rowell's style and storytelling in Eleanor & Park will likely appreciate Fangirl as well. And, of course, this book is great for your adult readers who love YA. It's an ideal crossover title.
Fangirl will be available tomorrow, September 10, from St. Martin's Press. Review copy received from the publisher.