Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013, 448 pages
If you’ve been anywhere near young adult lit in the past two years or so, you’ve probably at least heard of Rainbow Rowell and either Eleanor & Park or Fangirl. I finally got around to reading Fangirl recently. As someone who is very much a fangirl, I went into the book expecting to find a character very much like myself in Cath. And I did.
Cath and her twin sister, Wren, are heading to college for the first time. While they’ve decided to attend the same school, Wren is ready to branch out and doesn’t want to be Cath’s roommate. Shy and socially anxious, Cath is paired with Reagan, an older student whose comfort in her own skin is a stark contrast to Cath’s cardigan-wrapped personality. Cath gets two-for-one when Reagan’s boyfriend, Levi, spends most of his time either in Cath and Reagan’s room or working at Starbucks – that is, when he isn’t studying agriculture on campus. Unwilling to leave her room for anything other than class and worrying about her sister whose introduction to college involves heavy partying and a general lack of communication with Cath, Cath struggles to adjust. All the while, she’s dealing with the reentry of her estranged mother into her life and the creeping feeling that maybe she likes the barnacle that is Levi.
So, you may have guessed that I picked up Fangirl with fairly high expectations. You’d be correct. And overall, I think the book did pretty well in the face of those expectations. One of its greatest strengths is its ability to pull the mundane day-to-day into a cohesive and relatively compelling story. The conflict embedded in Cath’s story isn’t terribly pressing. The inability to seamlessly integrate into college life is standard. Thousands of people experience it every year. Even Cath’s social anxiety, while obviously a strong if faceless antagonist in the book, is commonplace. It’s unusual to find a book about just life that doesn’t bore the reader into pitching the book across the room. That’s what makes Fangirl so unusual.
Part of what made the book feel so lifelike was the intersection of details. The problem with this is so many details become overwhelming, so many details are irrelevant to the core plot, and so many details make for a slow read. Fangirl didn’t take forever, but, despite how I liked it in other ways, it felt like it took a long time to get through.
On the other hand, Rowell creates fairly multi-dimensional and realistic characters. Without a true personified antagonist, Rowell is free to design characters that are not evil for the sake of providing a “bad guy” for Cath’s “good guy.” Each character is full of personality, including Cath. Many readers might disagree with this assessment, particularly in regard to Cath because she will be so similar to so many readers. As a (previous) member of this audience – the socially anxious teenage girl obsessed with a specific fandom and dying to write while falling for the boys she’ll never have – a lot of readers will identify with her. I worry this will lead to people describing Cath, then, as a sort-of Mary-Sue. I just don’t feel that’s the case. A character that represents the largest demographic in a population of readers is not, automatically, devoid of character. She’s simply a representative.
Rowell has an excellent grip on what college students are like today. Without being condescending or unrealistic, she tells the story of one college student many readers will see themselves in. With a true-to-life ending full of hope, she leaves her readers reminded of how even the mundane can be extraordinary and even the extraordinary can be normal.
❤❤❤❤ out of ❤❤❤❤❤