If you haven’t heard of it–whether you’re on Tumblr or not–the social blogging site launched a book club. Reblog Book Club is toted as “the first-ever official Tumblr Book Club.” It launched the week of September 10th with Fangirl: the Novel by Rainbow Rowell, who is a Tumblr user herself. A book club where I can participate–both by reading the book and talking about it–from my couch? Count me in! I was pretty late to jump on the bandwagon so I just finished Fangirl this weekend, but it’s safe to say the Reblog Book Club definitely picked the perfect novel with which to launch the club.
Fangirl follows Cather and her twin sister, Wren, who start off their freshman year of college in Nebraska. The girls are very close but as they start school, they begin to grow apart in most aspects of their life: Wren chooses to room with someone other than her sister, the girls argue over whether to get in touch with their estranged mother, as well as how to participate in the college lifestyle–Wren decides to join in the party culture of the school while Cath often stays in her room. They also begin to grow apart in regards to the one thing on which they were bonded: Simon Snow. Simon is the main character in a series of books about a magical world. (A none-too-subtle nod to Harry Potter.) Simon Snow plays a huge part in Fangirl since it’s what inspires Cath to be a fangirl and a writer of fanfiction (which is also an important aspect of the story.) Despite her apprehension, Cath is sucked into college life through her roommate Reagan, and Reagan’s constant companion, Levi. Overall, Fangirl is a fantastic window into the life of a modern college girl, one who is nerdy, introverted, and relatable to many, many people.
[Fair warning: SPOILER ALERT!]
Simon Snow and the Life of a Fandom
At the end of every chapter of Fangirl, Rowell adds in some tidbits from the fictional Simon Snow books, as well as sections of fanfiction written by Cath and Wren. It was really nice to gain some insight into this world that Cath and Wren love so much, without exclusively viewing it from their perspectives. However, Simon Snow was my least favorite aspect of Fangirl. I know it’s difficult for an author to create a whole original world within another story, especially when that world isn’t really the focus of a novel. To be honest, though, I just couldn’t bring myself to care about the Simon and Baz relationship simply because Cath and Wren cared about it, or from the short sections of the Simon Snow novels and fanfiction.
I understand that Simon Snow is supposed to represent the place that Harry Potter holds in our world. Maybe my love of Harry Potter isn’t deep enough to make the leap in understanding Cath’s love of Simon. I never participated in the Harry Potter fandom and if I have considered myself part of a fandom, I usually operate on the periphery choosing not to get too involved. That’s my own personal preference, but being in a fandom felt like a prerequisite to Fangirl. From what I’ve seen on Reblog Book Club, I might be alone in this feeling. I just wish there was more in Fangirl to make me fall in love with Simon Snow, other than telling me how much the characters love him.
Nick and the Woes of Writing
Moving on to aspects of the novel that I can relate to more than fandom: writing classes and the people who take writing classes. I can’t pretend to understand what Cath experienced with Nick stealing her work (though I can name half a dozen boys I had class with who fit Nick’s description,) or the debate Cath had with her writing professor over the validity of fanfiction. But I took a lot of writing and journalism classes in college that made me question my skill and my desire to write for a living. Rowell certainly has a lot of experience with writing, but I have rarely seen it portrayed in such a relatable way as in Fangirl. I definitely related to Cath’s struggles with writer’s block, creativity block, and–of course–the soul-crushing, ever-present self-doubt.
Fanfiction is also a topic that is rarely discussed in mainstream novels, television shows, or movies. Sure Teen Wolf had that fanfiction contest, and writers like Joss Whedon have expressed their own opinions on the subject. But when has it been a major aspect of a story? I’m sure there are other instances, but I can’t think of anything else aside from Fangirl. I especially liked the way that Rowell incorporated the debate about the legitimacy of fanfiction within Fangirl through Professor Piper, Cath’s writing teacher. There is a whole generation of fangirls and fanboys who have rarely seen that debate outside of the internet and there it was in a printed book. Excuse me while I get choked up about the revolutionizing of fanfiction and mainstream narrative.
Reagan and the Importance of Roommates (and Rules)
Out of all the characters in Fangirl, Reagan was my favorite. (Writer’s note: If I had to say, my personality is probably a mixture of both Reagan and Cath.) For me, Reagan represented a lot about the good parts of college: friendship, maturity, and feminism. There is this element of college where you become friends with people simply because you’re around them so much. So I found that aspect of Reagan and Cath’s relationship to be very realistic. Then there are the ground rules once Cath and Levi begin dating, which are really mature. Also, I would just like to appreciate the fact that we have a story here in which two girls aren’t fighting over a boy’s attention. In the word of the Doctor: fantastic!
Then there’s the implicit feminist aspect of Reagan’s personality. In addition to Reagan not competing with Cath for Levi’s attention, Reagan also goes on some feminist tirades that you will absolutely hear on any college campus. Lauren Bates wrote a post on her Tumblr blog, youngadultescent, about all the feminist moments in Fangirl. One of the points she brings up is Reagan’s reaction to Cath’s “that kind of girl” comment. The scene in which these two characters have this exchange was wonderfully written and I liked that Reagan called out Cath on her internalized misogyny. As Bates details, many other characters have feminist moments, but for me, Reagan represents the feminist voice of the novel.
Levi and the College Love Story
I have to commend Rowell for creating a lovably flawed romantic interest with Levi. Before reading Fangirl, I didn’t know anything about the story and I honestly didn’t know if Levi was going to be the major love interest–or if it was going to be Nick. I liked that aspect of the story because I think it imitates life. Levi was a good love interest though because he had both good and bad aspects to his character. Here’s this guy who might be tall, but isn’t stereotypically attractive. His three distinctive features are his hair, his smile, and his chin. He’s extremely nice–to the point that Cath has no idea he’s flirting with her, which is something to which I can really relate. But Levi is also insecure about the way he studies as well as his inability to read through a whole book. Levi is a completely well-rounded character who I think I fell in love with even before Cath.
Now about their saga: love stories aren’t revolutionary. Everyone has already read pretty much every version of a love story and the only original aspect are the characters. I think Rowell pulled that off with Levi and Cath. Romances in college have a tendency of being messy and sometimes really, really hard. Cath and Levi’s relationship is no different. Sure, as a reader I knew that those crazy kids were going to work it out, but there were moments when I had serious doubts. I liked the complications of their relationship–Reagan, classes, sex, Wren–and that they were able to unite through fanfiction. I loved it.
Wren and the Bond of Family
More importantly than Levi, though, is Cath’s relationship with her twin sister Wren. Full disclosure, I don’t have a twin sister. However, from what I can tell, Rowell portrayed Cath and Wren’s relationship in a way that anyone with siblings can probably relate–maybe even anyone who doesn’t have a sibling. In a way, Fangirl is a coming of age story (no matter how cliched that is,) and part of growing up is reevaluating your relationships with your family and friends. Sometimes people go to college and they grow closer with their family, sometimes they lose touch with their old friends, and sometimes the opposite happens. Everyone will have a different experience, but anyone who has been through a similar situation can relate to the tension between Cath and Wren.
I particularly loved the transformation that Wren undergoes. Arguably, Cath is the single protagonist of Fangirl, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Wren is just as important as Cath. Sure, Wren goes through a different experience when she gets to college since she is more extroverted of the two, but they are both dealing with being away from home in a new environment for the first time. I think the differences between Cath and Wren are what make their relationship important in Fangirl. They’re each other’s support system, but they also offer a different way of dealing with the situation particularly with their mother, Laura, who re-enters their lives. Wren deals with it by drinking and trying to get into contact with Laura while Cath closes herself off in her room. However, by the end of the novel, the sisters overcome their differences because that’s what family does. I felt Rowell wrapped up their relationship in a wonderful way that didn’t bash The True Meaning of Family into readers’ heads.
Cather and the Effects of Anxiety, Introversion, and Mental Illness
Although readers with twins, siblings, and/or an undying love for a certain fandom will obviously relate to Cath and Fangirl, I found that the most compelling aspect of the novel was Rowell’s portrayal of Cath’s anxiety, her introversion, and her father’s mental illness. These are topics that aren’t usually discussed in young adult literature, but they certainly affect a large number of young adults as well as twenty-somethings–like myself. I’ve seen great portrayals of panic attacks in other novels (E. Lockhart’s Ruby Oliver series,) but here is a girl dealing with anxiety in college. Besides anxiety and panic attacks are different beasts–probably the same species, but still different. Plus, add in Cath’s introverted nature as well as her aversion to drunken idiots, and you’ve very nearly described my freshman year of college (with less fanfiction.) Even though the novel is called Fangirl, I think these aspects of Cath are more important than her involvement within the Simon Snow fandom.
Then there is Cath’s relationship with her father, Arthur, who suffers from a type of mental illness that is never explicitly mentioned, though it sounds like bipolar disorder. I really liked this new take on the father-daughter relationship, especially because Arthur has a different relationship with both of his daughters. Sure, in Twilight, Bella tends to take care of her father, but Arthur has moments when he is seriously incapable of taking care of himself. Every young adult who goes off to college probably worries a bit about their parents, especially if they’re the last child to leave the nest, so many people can identify with Cath. I felt that this family dynamic was really well written and relatable even though not all readers will understand Cath’s specific situation.
Overall, I loved Fangirl. It’s one of the best, most unique books I’ve read this year–possibly in the past few years–with some of the most relatable characters. I had so much fun reading this novel and going through this experience with other fangirls on Tumblr. Now I need to get my hands on Rainbow Rowell’s other books: Eleanor & Park and Attachments.