Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell


Rainbow Rowell

St. Martin's Press
Published September 10, 2013
481 pages

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Cath is a Simon Snow fan.
Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan...
But for Cath, being a fan is her life—and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving. Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fan fiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.
Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to.
Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words... And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.
For Cath, the question is: Can she do this? Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? Writing her own stories?
And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind? 

I’ve come to Rainbow Rowell and Fangirl late. This is partly because of lingering issues from all the contemporary YA I read as an actual teenager, but also because this book was so popular so quickly that my automatic reaction to distrust all popular things kicked in before it ever came out. While it sounded likea book I would enjoy, I didn’t trust myself to enjoy it without my personal biases getting in the way, so I let the hype carry it away and didn’t think much of it.

Until I saw it on the library shelf while browsing a few weeks ago and it looked cute and fluffy with cover art by Noelle Stevenson. I was in the mood for cute and fluffy, so I gave it a shot.

I couldn’t have picked a better time to read Fangirl if I had done it on purpose. From the first few pages, this book kicked me in the stomach with memories and nostalgia because I was Cath. She’s neurotic and shy and doesn’t want to leave her dorm room unless it’s to go to class. She has no intention of making friends because she doesn’t know how, and while she’s incredibly lonely, it’s a feeling that makes her more comfortable than attempting to have a life outside.


Early on, Rowell describes all the anxiety-riddled reasons Cath doesn’t want to go to the cafeteria to eat a meal, instead relying on snacks she brought from home. Every reason felt a bit like a knife in my soul because I related to every thought, every fear, ever anxiety. Returning to school after a decade of being in the working world has been a learning experience revolving mostly on how much I didn’t know in undergrad. Reading this book was cathartic, allowing me to exorcise some demons while I try not to repeat those same mistakes in graduate school. Watching Cath grow and bloom into someone with a life outside the fan fiction she writes gave me hope. I didn’t achieve that level of growth in my 4.5 years of undergrad, but perhaps I can change things now.

But this is more self-reflection and less book review, so let me actually talk about the book.

Through the lens of fan-fiction-as-escapism, Rowell creates a fully formed character in Cath with weaknesses, strengths, moments of doubt, and successes of overcoming obstacles. She’s a real person through and through. While most of the secondary characters are boiled down to their base characters (Wren is the reckless and wild twin, Levi is the awkwardly adorable boy, the roommate is the brassy and loud hot girl), it doesn’t matter because this is Cath’s world, everyone else populates it. She is the sun everything revolves around though she doesn’t even know it.

The story is well-paced with mishaps and drama puncturing times when things may have lagged over Cath’s endeavor to write the ultimate piece of fan fiction. These moments of drama rely on realistic portrayals of underage binge drinking, a parent with mental illness, an absent parent’s sudden return, and extreme anxiety, all deep subjects dealt with delicately. 

Towards the later part of the book, the romance became a little over-the-top for me, but mostly because I’ve never become obsessed with someone’s chin before (it’ll make more sense if you’ve read the book). Rowell does, however, take time to explore the thoughts of a late bloomer facing the possibility of losing their virginity. As a late bloomer myself, I appreciated the balance between want and fear that Cath fights through as she deals with expectations she puts on herself to be “normal”.

My only real complaint about Fangirl is that, after a long and steady progression of story, the conclusion came suddenly and felt incomplete. It felt as though Rowell, much like her main character, came up against an unmovable external deadline and tied up the story the best she could. It felt a little incomplete though perhaps she left it more open ended to encourage her own cabal of fan’s fictions. 

I never became enamored with the Simon Snow fiction that are interspersed throughout the book, so I don’t think I will move on to Carry On. The parallels to Harry Potter were a little too heavy-handed, though at the same time understandable for what Rowell was trying to achieve.

While Fangirl was an enjoyable read, I’m not sure I would have liked it as much if it weren’t for the situational parallels going on in my real life. While I’m not entering college for the first time, many of my recent experiences had me looking bad in sadness at the things I missed due to my own anxiety. To see a character like Cath come out successful despite hardships is a rewarding look at what-could-have-been. This was a fun and relatively quick read, though I don’t know if it will convert me back to the realm of contemporary fiction.