The book description was intriguing, but I was not prepared for how much I would love reading Fangirl. It is one of those rare stories that just made me smile, when I wasn’t marveling at how well the author gets it.
Cath is starting college at the University of Nebraska, but she’s not your typical freshman. She’s nerdy and awkward and comes with bucketloads of social anxiety, and she’d much rather stay in her dorm room writing fanfiction than get drunk at a frat party. She’s always depended on her twin sister for her social life, but Wren wants to have the hard-partying college experience and has refused to room with Cath, who gets stuck with an intimidating older student. Many of the elements here are common to coming-of-age stories--there’s first love and family drama--but Fangirl is also about writing, and being a fan, and it encapsulates the experience of being a social misfit in college. Or at least, one experience of it: having a lot in common with Cath, I had to reconcile myself early on to the fact that there are differences (major differences) between her freshman experience and mine--but those are details; on an emotional level I found this story to be real and true.
This is a character-driven book, so I’ll start with the characters. Cath is fantastically-realized, quirky, and fun, and there’s so much that I love about Rowell’s portrayal of her, but here’s the most important thing: it’s okay to be like Cath. Cath has a lot going for her--she’s smart, witty, loyal and caring--and growing up means growing in her own direction, learning to handle new relationships and thrive in a new environment, not changing who she is. Cath doesn’t get a makeover or become a wild child or give up fanfiction. She’s a nerd, without having to be either the genius type or a super-sexy babe. And she’s completely believable; even where I would have had the opposite reaction, her feelings and behavior always rang true to her character.
But the other characters are great too, wholly authentic and often endearing. The book is largely driven by dialogue, and while Rowell’s prose is nothing special, the dialogue sparkles. It brings the characters to life and it’s often humorous, but it’s also so exactly the way people talk to one another, I think I’ve had some of these conversations. The romance is genuinely sweet, with characters who seem like a good fit for one another, and I loved that Cath’s hangups about physical affection don’t just disappear once she’s in a relationship; it’s something she has to work on.
Then too, the book is a celebration of the intense relationships we develop with fictional characters and worlds. Cath is a fan of Simon Snow, a stand-in for Harry Potter: and she's a big-name fan, with thousands of people following her writing. I loved the way Cath’s writing is treated: it’s taken seriously, as a major aspect of her life and a talent to be proud of--even by her writing professor, a novelist herself who sees Cath's potential but can’t stand the thought of fanfiction. (They have multiple conversations about this, as the professor becomes something of a mentor for Cath. I’m telling you, this book is nerd heaven!) My biggest criticism of the book is that it could have just referred to Harry Potter by name and been less campy; this might have caused problems with the inclusion of snippets from the “Simon Snow” books and a few lengthy chunks of Cath’s fanfiction, but these are largely extraneous to the story anyway. However, Rowell does a great job with the fanfiction excerpts, which are polished while still sounding like something an 18-year-old girl would write.
In the end, there are so many scenes and little moments in this book that struck a chord with me. I love that Cath attends a big state university--there are so few novels set in college, and most of them seem to be about people quoting poetry at one another at small liberal arts colleges; I loved reading about the kind of school I attended, with a huge campus, where people work part-time and aren’t necessarily academically-oriented. I loved Cath’s realization that she comes from a mostly rural state where her experience growing up in Omaha isn’t the norm; I had that too. And the clashing assumptions about sex between Cath and her roommate. And Cath’s arguing with her boyfriend about whether or not his chivalry is respectful. And her heightened awareness of her safety on campus at night (even though physical danger is not a part of this story): I too have dialed 911 on my cell phone just in case. I could go on, but you get the picture.
This book isn’t great literature, but it’s a fun, funny and true-to-life story of an experience I haven’t seen fictionalized before, and for that I love it. Recommended to anyone who’s been weird in college, or anyone who sees that in their future. I wish I could have read it when I was 17.