BOOK REVIEW: FANGIRL By Rainbow Rowell

Hi guys, I’m so excited to be sharing with you all my very first book review on this blog and, hopefully, this will be the first of many!  I’ve decided to kick off this series by looking back at an author who has hit the nail on the head for me – and that’s Rainbow Rowell.  The book that I’ll be talking about today is Fangirl.

Fangirl

Just so that you know, I have not read all of Rowell’s books yet, so I will only be commenting on Fangirl in isolation.  I do plan on reading Carry On very soon, so I’m sure I’ll have another Rowell review coming within the next couple of months!  I will do my best but I can’t promise that there won’t be anything in here that might reveal more than you care to know at this point, so a *SPOILER ALERT* needs to be in place, just in case.

My reviewing skills are still a work in progress so please do bear with me while I ramble!  Please do let me know in the comments if there are any key elements to the novel that you feel are worth my taking another look at and discussing further.  I do think I’ll return with more thoughts about Fangirl at some point so I’d love to read your thoughts on this book!  I would really appreciate and welcome any ideas! 

Before I get stuck into the review, I’d like to share with you how I personally discovered Rainbow Rowell:

My first foray into Rowell’s writing was when I was 23 years old, back in mid-2014, and I had locked gazes with Fangirl in Swansea’s WHSmith.  I say we “locked gazes” because it honestly felt that the book was waiting for me to pass it in the aisles and was vying for my attention.  The book chose it’s time to reveal itself to me very wisely.  I don’t know how I wasn’t aware of this book.  Fangirl had been on shelves for just under a year already, had been an instant bestseller with a rapidly growing online following and, to top it all off, I spent most of my lunch hours browsing both Waterstones and WHSmith. Yet, for some reason, I had not clapped eyes on any of Rowell’s books! I’m not very much of a “this is fate” kind of person but I do feel it wanted to be found by me on that day.  Or maybe I was simply ready to see it.

I have made many attempts at writing a novel since I was 16 and in 2014 I was working on my most personally resonating ideas.  It was a story about a socially anxious young woman, trying to make sense of the world through literature – specifically a fantasy series.  My heroine was going to be a fanfiction writer, have (internal) imaginary conversations with characters from her beloved series, and eventually get to meet her hero, the author, at a fan convention.  Basically, she was going to be a literary incarnation of myself, with an added dollop of wish-fulfilment.  Until then I had struggled to have faith in any of my ideas but this idea felt like “the big one”.  

Up until I had spotted Fangirl, I had not yet come across any novels that included fangirls and fanboys as their protagonists.  So I was very proud of myself!  I was convinced that I had clocked onto something groundbreaking! I’d sniffed out the gap in the literary market and I was determined to fill it!

This idea gained some steam – I was still working on it after 4 months, which was a massive deal for me!  I usually put the pen down on project ideas after only a few weeks. I didn’t tell anybody about it because I didn’t anybody to knock my idea down into the dirt.  Most people that I knew already didn’t really understand my interest in exploring fandom as an academic topic (I had written a Master’s dissertation on fanfiction critique the year before) and I just didn’t believe that they would view it as a worthwhile perspective for a novel.  

So, four months into my project and I was doing my usual lunch hour browse of WHSmith and there, facing out, was the duck-egg blue and pink letter embossed cover of Fangirl staring at me from a shelf.  I’ll hold my hands up right now and admit that my first thoughts upon spotting the book weren’t pleasant ones.  I think “fuck, no!” was the likeliest thing to come to my mind first…

I glared at the front cover, immobilised by the repetitive, destructive thought “someone’s beaten me to it!”  Then I stalked off out of the shop, determined to pretend that I hadn’t seen Fangirl and that I’d carry on with my project as though the bestseller stack at WHSmith didn’t matter.  Safe to say that didn’t last long at all.  I spent that evening looking over my notes and wondering if I was unwittingly writing a copy of someone else’s story.  Sure, I hadn’t read the book so it wouldn’t be plagiarism but what if I had been attempting to squeeze myself into shoes that had already been filled?  So, curiosity having got the better of me, I went and picked up a copy the very next day and resolved to read it all before I even thought about picking up my own project again.  I just couldn’t continue writing knowing that my idea might already be out there with someone else’s name on it.  Fangirl was my writer’s block.

REVIEW:

So what did I make of this rival to my creative vision? Honestly, within pages, my animosity melted away and was replaced with feeling like this was the book I had needed post-Harry Potter!  I no longer felt angry at the fact that someone “got there first”.  For starters, it wasn’t the story I’d been planning to write, though it was similar.  It had all the same essence of perspective that I had as a fangirl and what I’d hoped to bestow on my protagonist.  The plot, however, was quite different to what I had in mind.  So in that regard, I felt safe in continuing to read this book and still consider my own story as a possibility.  Elements of my story needed changing, mainly for my own comfort, but essentially I could still continue with my project with less anxiety.

I’ve heard this from other readers and lovers of Fangirl, but Rowell’s lead character, Cath, felt like me in almost every sense!  Cath is your quintessential, socially anxious English Lit student.  She is an introvert to the core and, even only a few years ago, it was so incredibly hard to find female protagonists who were happy in their own company but extremely uncomfortable when more people are added to their environment.  The daily courage of Cath was her facing her anxieties, not battling monsters and evil people like so many other traditionally courageous female leads.  And she was a fan fiction writer on top of it all!

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Art, Wren, Cath, Levi, Regan and Nick – character illustrations from the inside cover of Fangirl

The quirks and issues that Cath has, individually and within her family and friendships, feel all too real for me, as a fellow socially anxious introvert!  Cath feeling stung by someone she loves while they mock her for her love of the Simon Snow series.  The being ghosted by those she trusts.  And trying to set her own physical boundaries for her psychological safety!  All of these key moments in how she relates to others, and how often she feels threatened by the presence of others, are regular occurrences for those who live internally but have tried to allow others in.    We feel Cath’s struggle with her while she tries to maintain her personal standards while confronting the suffocating extraversion of the first year of university and dormitory halls.

It’s always been hard to try and explain the crippling anxiety of social interaction, particularly in a university setting.  However, Cath’s fear of entering the cafeteria alone, and then only eating boxes of protein bars for weeks perfectly sums up how that fear comes about, what the triggers may be and why the socially anxious may choose to avoid rather than deal with it.

The writing caught hold of me within those first few pages.  I forgot the fact that I’d spent the past night angry and anxious and instead felt “oh my god, Cath feels this way? Me too!”  How could I ever be mad at a book, or its author, if it gives me a precious moment like that? As a socially anxious introvert, those “we’re so alike” moments are relatively hard to come by!  The format of the book is such a joy.  The main narrative is broken up with chapters from the “original” Simon Snow books (clearly meant to emulate the Harry Potter books) and then with fan fiction chapters that Cath’s fan fiction writer alter-ego, MagiCath.  Even in my project, though I wanted my protagonist to be a fan fiction writer, I had even considered including pieces of fan fiction!

All YA books, including the fictional Simon Snow series, are written to resonate with adolescent milestones and emotions, but what Rowell has done here is give us a glimpse as to one of the purposes of fan fiction – to be able to use familiar characters and settings to better understand our real-life circumstances and emotions to a better and more objective level of understanding.  Like journaling your own emotions until you figure them out, writing your emotions into a beloved character’s development allows you to dissect the foundations and structure of that emotion and understand any subsequent behaviour.  People normally read books in search for resonance, fan fiction writers usually write for the same reason, even if it means filling in the perceived gaps with their own perspective on the story.  There’s a degree of comforting separation and impartiality in writing fan fiction.  Some may not feel comfortable writing about their inner workings, even within a journal, so utilising existing characters and settings is an ideal outlet for the creative fan but private personality.

As the plot progresses, we see Cath’s fan fiction writing become influenced by her experiences, and so she develops as a person in the process of writing and sussing out her life in the context of something that she adores.  A few years ago, if I were to discuss this concept of purpose within fan fiction to people that I knew, and it’s therapeutic effects, they’d still comment on how it serves no purpose, how it’s cheating, not real writing etc.  Luckily, and with books like Fangirl now in print, the wider public is beginning to understand fan culture and fan fiction writing a bit better than before.

Something that I really do applaud Rowell for in this novel is that Wren, Cath’s twin sister, is made out to be attempting to be Cath’s opposite though it is made clear to the reader that you’re not to see her as an enemy or someone to dislike.  She does mean things to Cath that we, as readers, are affronted by on Cath’s behalf but the tone is largely set so that we understand that she’s simply trying breaking the mold of the probably interchangeable identity that the twins had throughout school, on which Cath maybe became just too dependant on.  People are dicks in this book, for sure, even the supposed good guys! Cath, too, is not above being a bit of a dick at times but the novel as a whole serves as a reminder that we all have our anxieties and, sometimes misguided, ways of dealing but it doesn’t make weirdos or monsters out of us.  Just naturally flawed human beings. People get hurt by mean actions but then there is always room to accept apology and forgiveness.  That being said though, the gang rooting for Cath to take down Nick’s attempts at stealing their story for his own credit was pretty fucking sweet!  The message may be that we’re all naturally and understandably flawed but Nick was still a bit of a cunt. #sorrynotsorry

And now… the romance!  Levi is such a freaking sweetheart! He’s simple in his drives and in his intentions but he is no simpleton.  He lights up a room with no expectation for Cath to be anything other than herself.  It’s easy to see romance in novels and then expect too much from our respective romantic partners but the beauty of Levi’s character is that he asks for nothing more than for Cath to be herself in every way, to accept him in every way and, of course, to root for him!

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“Are you rooting for me” – Levi.  From the inside back cover of Fangirl.

Levi’s line “I mean… are you rooting for me?” gave me a bit of a lightbulb moment, to be honest.  It’s something I’ve always been aware of but it is said in this way made the lesson all the more obvious – and essential: you’ve got to want for someone to regain your trust, for them to be in with the chance of regaining it. You’ve got to want to forgive someone, to be able to allow forgiveness to be real. You’ve got to want someone to succeed, for them to succeed in your eyes.  A pretty obvious lesson in life, right?  But what Rowell has beautifully done, is put it in the language of fans.

As a fan, I always come across the phrases “I’m rooting for -” or “I’m totally shipping these guys”.  It’s pretty common lingo in fandom to want for certain characters to achieve the imagination of the reader/viewer.  Characters become loved because they’re rooted for, believed in.  No matter their past wrongs, there’s the faith that they will redeem themselves, gain or regain trust and win!  It’s a remarkably clever way of making the situation seem more objective to Cath, who is an avid reader and writer.  She understands what it takes to root for someone in the context of a story.  And Levi is asking of her to offer him, someone real and not fictional, the same courtesy.  Rowell and Levi are reminding the Caths of the world that you’ve got to root for love, root for trust and root for forgiveness.  

I think it’s time for me to wrap up this review/discussion, order myself a copy of Carry On and “carry on” in living with geeky pride!  Ultimately, the main thing that I love about this book is Cath.  I’ve spent most of my life struggling to display my geekiness and proudly share my fan fiction but Cath is a character that unifies us fan fiction writing misfits, the socially anxious and those who really are not into the university party scene.  Right here, right now, I’ll admit that I didn’t realise just how much I always needed this book until I read it.  Despite our frosty first acquaintance, this book and I now have a solid, dependable relationship that gets revisited a few times each year.  It’s one of those books that believe I’ll always return to as it’s a consolation read for the years of feeling like the geeky freak who couldn’t leave her university bedroom out of fear.

Have any of you guys read Fangirl?  What did you think? Did you find yourself in Cath, or in any of the other characters?

5.
After my first read of Fangirl back in 2014, I gave the book an ardent kiss of approval! If you didn’t think I was sad, you will now…

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