Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Reading Challenge: A YA Bestseller
Although I selected this for my “YA Bestseller” read, I could also have reasonably chosen it for my “recommended by a family member” book. My older sister read it first, and told me it made her think of me. I was not sure how to feel about that, especially when I got around to starting the book. You see, “Fangirl” is about a college freshman with fairly severe social anxiety, separating from her twin and her father for the first time, who spends as much time as possible shut away fully absorbed in writing fanfiction for a thinly-veiled “Harry Potter” series. Is that how my sister pictured me in college? Yes, I was a socially anxious, awkward, nerdy teenager, but two things: 1, I was actually very outgoing in college, and 2, I never wrote fanfiction, thankyouverymuch. Okay, there was maybe that one Star Trek story when I was 15, but I invented my whole own ship and crew rather than using any of the existing characters. That has to count for something!
Sigh. This book got me worked up, which was to its credit. Cath – look, that name. First of all, every other heroine in existence has a Catherine-based name. Second, I sort of get “Cather” as a name, I get the explanation in the book, but I have spent too much time working in hospitals. You know what a cath is in a hospital? Yeah, you do. It’s not obscure. Okay, back on track. Cath was a frustrating, complicated heroine and I appreciated how much the author resisted ever simplifying her. I wanted to smack her several times, related to her on a number of levels, and felt for her at other times. I thought the father was well-done (and that although I could comfortably have diagnosed most of these characters without getting any pushback from an insurance company, none of them were ever just what the DSM would have to say). I loved Reagan. I thought she was a fully-believable fairy godmother for our shy heroine, also complicated, also with her own shit going on, and just so hilarious. Characters who exist only to inexplicably like Our Heroine, who has been thoroughly unpleasant to them, are my pet peeve, and Reagan could easily have stepped over that line. She didn’t. I would be friends with Reagan. I thought Wren was about 3/4s of a good character, but had a sense that there was a middle step we missed in her development. We never really cracked the box open on Wren, and I was sorry about that, because she’s important. Cath, her father, and Reagan especially made me appreciate the psychological consistency the author was capable of. I could not, however, warm up to Levi. That he went all “wives, mothers, daughters” on the creep in the bar was enough to completely lose me (or, you know, you shouldn’t be a creep because these girls are people who don’t want to be creeped on, not because they have a father who wouldn’t like to hear it! This thought was apparently too complex for Our Love Interest, and no one ever suggested it to him, even when Cath was fighting him on other Items of Chivalry). But even before then I thought he was smug. And he remained smug, even when he was apologizing or messing up or confessing vulnerability. Smug.
This book was uncomfortable reading, too, both for the unflinchingly uncomfortable moments and the memories it brought back of my own college years (yesterday marked 9 years since graduation, if that gives you any hint how far back I had to reach for freshman year memories). And that was in its favor! The realness of it all!
This book also made me think about what incredibly mixed feelings I have about fanfiction. I’m reasonably conversant in the terms, having read a tumblr or two: I know what a “ship” is in fandom, I know what OTP and AU stand for, and I have created a headcanon or two. Like Cath, I was a writing major in college and had professors in fiction writing who banned us from turning in genre pieces, for bullshit reasons of snobbery in academia (I don’t know what they would have done with fanfiction – killed it with fire, probably). I think people should be able to write whatever they want and get feedback on it. I don’t think it’s fair to look down on fanfiction on the internet when Jane Austen fanfictions get published every year essentially because people can’t get enough of fantasizing about Mr. Darcy, and that’s somehow more okay than Draco/Harry slashfic. On the other hand, fanfiction gave us the crime against humanity that is Fifty Shades of Grey, and it…well, much of it makes me uncomfortable. But people have been lovingly crafting their sexual fantasies into works for art since forever, and “because I wouldn’t want to do it and it makes me uncomfortable” is the baseline reasoning for a lot of current legislation that I’m very much opposed to. So carry on, fanfiction (see what I did there? If you read the book, you did).
Bottom line, I guess, is that this is a very frustrating, uncomfortable, but honestly good book.
Suggested pairing: I feel like I shouldn’t recommend any alcoholic beverage since Cath doesn’t drink, but Long Trail just came out with this super, super tasty IPA called Green Blaze? It’s so good. And it’s fairly complex and flavorful, so it would match well with this book.