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Rainbow Rowell gets it. She gets the fear and loneliness that introverts can feel during their first year of college. She gets the intensity of the bond between sisters and the tragedy of conflict that threatens that bond. She gets how you felt around your first love, equal parts desire and hesitation. She even gets your fandom. Rainbow Rowell burst onto the Young Adult scene with ELEANOR & PARK, which was released in February 2013 to widespread critical acclaim and heralded as an honest love story for quirky misfits. In FANGIRL, Rowell’s protagonist is part of a different alternative social subculture: Cather writes fanfiction. Actually, she’s pretty great at it.

"Fangirl or not, this will resonate with anyone who has ever been unsure of themselves in the throes of great change."

Cather (call her Cath) and her twin sister Wren have been obsessed with the Simon Snow books since they were young. Simon Snow is a teenage boy who goes to a school for magic and is destined to defeat the Insidious Humdrum, an entity that threatens to drain magicians of their supernatural abilities. If this reminds you of another series about a boy wizard destined to save the world, you’re not wrong. In Rowell’s world, Simon Snow is a worldwide phenomenon. Everyone in Cath’s generation has read the books or at least seen the movies. But Cath and Wren could never leave the characters when they closed the books or turned off the TV. Instead, as Cath explains it, the characters kept talking in her head, and she felt compelled to write down their conversations. Soon, Cath and Wren were writing fanfiction, most of which reimagined the relationship between Simon and his nemesis/roommate, the vampire Baz. (Real-life fangirls may equate this with Drarry fic, which, for the uninitiated, imagines a romance between Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.) When a popular fanfiction writer posted a recommendation for Cath’s version of the as-yet-unpublished final Simon Snow book, Cath’s internet fame skyrocketed. Big Name Fan status secured, Cath has about 5,000 readers hanging on her every update. The clock is ticking to the release of the official final Simon Snow novel, and Cath wants to finish hers first.

Cath feels perfectly at home writing the characters she loves, but her real home life has become even more stressful than usual. For starters, she doesn’t live at home anymore. She just started her freshman year of college, and she is doing her best to avoid meeting people and steer clear of her brash roommate, Reagan, who looks like an edgy, red-haired Adele. Reagan’s boyfriend, Levi, seems friendly enough, but he keeps eating Cath’s protein bars when she’s not there. This only hastens the day when Cath will have to brave the dining hall. She still isn’t exactly sure where the dining hall is, but she has jars upon jars of peanut butter to eat through before she’ll need to find out.

If Wren were her roommate, Cath wouldn’t feel so lost. But Wren announced to Cath that summer that she would prefer to room with other people. Cath felt this as a betrayal, a sort of break-up of sisterly proportions. Now that they’re at school, Wren is partying, attracting male attention and saying hurtful things about Simon. Cath wants her sister back. As if this weren’t enough, she also worries about their father, a genius manic-depressive who sometimes forgets to take care of himself.

As the school year progresses, Cath manages to open up to a few people and ends up accidentally in love with one of them. Rowell unfolds this relationship with such a natural ease, slow realization building to the inevitable encounter, that you will swear she was following you around with a notebook at the dawning of your first real relationship. She gives us an excruciatingly honest look at the nervousness of first sexual contact, including everything from shoulder-touching on up. Cath has always struggled with establishing emotional closeness and physical contact, and these issues do not vanish the minute she likes a guy who likes her back.

Cath often reads as an exaggeration of the social awkwardness that most people feel during their late teen years. While many readers may not have made Cath’s choices, they will still squirm at Rowell’s uncanny ability to articulate those secret, fleeting thoughts that they never quite captured long enough to pin down. Rowell hints that Cath may fall somewhere on the manic-depressive spectrum, though not as obviously as her father, so this may help non-manic-depressive readers to understand the effects that her anxiety and bursts of creativity can have on her. 

Perhaps the best thing about this novel is that Cath doesn’t have to change fundamental aspects of her personality in order to grow as a person. She never gives up fanfiction, much to the chagrin of her writing teacher and mentor, whose protestations lead to several scenes in which Cath (and, through her, Rowell) describes the motivation for fanfiction more eloquently than most mainstream media has managed. (It is clear that Rowell knows what she is talking about. Her author bio indicates that she once wrote fanfiction like her protagonist.) Cath doesn’t completely unwind the tangles of her family problems, and her hang-ups about romantic relationships aren’t solved the minute she understands her crush’s reciprocal feelings. She doesn’t become an extroverted party girl. She doesn’t take off her glasses to reveal the supermodel beneath. Cath is smart, funny, loyal and a great writer; her evolution is less of a changing and more of an opening.

Between chapters, “excerpts” from Simon Snow books and from Cath’s fanfiction stories appear and often parallel events or emotions in Cath’s life. The book begins with an online encyclopedia entry about the Simon Snow books. These strategies allow readers to soak up the world of Simon Snow and understand what about the books and the characters intrigues Cath so utterly. By the end, readers should not be surprised if they too are “shipping” Simon and Baz. Anyone from the Harry Potter generation, regardless of his or her level of involvement in the fandom, will be able to relate to or at least understand Cath’s enthusiasm for living in this fantasy world. Plus, fangirls and fanboys who spend time on Tumblr will be happy to learn that Noelle Stevenson designed the cover of this book.

Wrestling with the conflicting emotional and intellectual demands of her school, her roommate, her crush, her sister, her father, her absent mother, her anxiety and her thousands of rabid readers, Cath summarizes her state of mind when she says, “I don’t know how to be.” Fangirl or not, this will resonate with anyone who has ever been unsure of themselves in the throes of great change.

Reviewed by Caroline Osborn on September 24, 2013

by Rainbow Rowell