Thursday, February 20, 2014

Top 13 of 2013: (#10) FANGIRL by Rainbow Rowell

AUTHOR: Rainbow Rowell -- Twitter | Website
PUBLISHED: September 10, 2013 by St. Martin's Griffin (Macmillan)
GENRE: Young Adult, Contemporary
PAGES: 438
BUY IT: Barnes and Noble | Amazon
Find it on Goodreads

Cath is a Simon Snow fan.

Okay, the whole world is a Simon Snow fan . . .

But for Cath, being a fan is her life — and she’s really good at it. She and her twin sister, Wren, ensconced themselves in the Simon Snow series when they were just kids; it’s what got them through their mother leaving.

Reading. Rereading. Hanging out in Simon Snow forums, writing Simon Snow fan fiction, dressing up like the characters for every movie premiere.

Cath’s sister has mostly grown away from fandom, but Cath can’t let go. She doesn’t want to.

Now that they’re going to college, Wren has told Cath she doesn’t want to be roommates. Cath is on her own, completely outside of her comfort zone. She’s got a surly roommate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.

For Cath, the question is: Can she do this?

Can she make it without Wren holding her hand? Is she ready to start living her own life? Writing her own stories?

And does she even want to move on if it means leaving Simon Snow behind?
I first learned about Fangirl when author Claire Legrand was doing an ARCapalooza this past summer on Twitter. I had received most of the books she was giving away at BEA, but when she mentioned Fangirl, I looked it up and knew I had to have it.

Fangirl was my first Rainbow Rowell book. But I'd heard good things about Attachments and Eleanor and Park, and I was just starting to get into YA Contemporary after falling deeply in love with Katie McGarry and her Pushing the Limits series. The plot of sounded really interesting to me.

I didn't win Fangirl that day from Claire. I decided to wait and read some of the reviews, which I was shocked to find were all over the place. Some of my most-trusted blogger friends, who has awesome taste and whose opinions I usually agree with, felt it was just mediocre or just didn't finished it. But after I experienced Allegiant, I decided that I needed a change. YA contemporary felt like a nice departure from dystopian and all the things I usually gobble down, so when my mom went out and bought my brother a new portable speaker for his iPhone, she offered to buy me books. The first book into my B&N online cart was Fangirl.

Before I go into my review of the book, I feel it's important that I give you some background about me so you can see how I approached the novel and why I feel so strongly about it.

When I left for college nearly ten years ago, I was going to a somewhat large university (over 30,000 kids) after leaving behind a school district that had a whopping total of 2,000 kids. My graduating class had 94 kids in it and I'd known half of them since I was in kindergarten and the other half since I was 11 years old when our two middle schools merged.

I had a strange combination of personality types. For the most part, I was a mostly quiet, bookworm, goody-goody kind of type who was happy to blend in.

Under the right circumstances, I flourished and would bloom from a wallflower into ... well, maybe not a rose, but a daisy. Before the world knew who she was, I was the classic Hermione type -- hand always in the air ready to answer questions and contribute and frustrated with anyone who beat me to it. I also loved to sing, dance, play instruments, perform, and was somewhat athletic.

While the former didn't exactly earn me many friends (though it did earn me the title of teacher's pet), the latter did. I'd been friends with enough girls who were outgoing all the time during elementary school, well before being popular mattered and fell in with a few more who were also strong students and between that, I I managed to float with a somewhat "in" crowd for most of my high school years. That might not be the case had I not gone to such a small school, but it worked in my favor.

But behind closed doors, I led another life where I was popular and where I did work really hard to be well liked and please people. That life took place on, where I wrote, as the name says Fan Fiction, primarily for my favorite show at the time, Gilmore Girls (which is still one of my all-time favorite TV shows).

I'd always known I loved to write. I liked journalistic writing because it was realistic and easy for me to find ways to write about it and put my pen to use. I loved reading fiction, but I had the hardest time coming up with my own scenarios, settings, and characters. Even if it was just a realistic story, coming up with it was almost painful for me. I tried to take creative writing and I did okay with it, but I was basically just taking experiences that had happened to me, changing names, and calling it a day. I definitely didn't feel like it was my niche.

But when I discovered fan fiction, things changed a little. Here, I didn't have to come up with many characters for the most part -- everything and everyone was established. And I loved end of the season cliffhangers when I could take my hopes and dreams for the show and write my version of what would happen when the show returned in the fall. I discovered a lot about myself as a writer there. I discovered that I could develop a voice or figure out a character at their core and then expand upon them. I kept this up until I was well into college.

College for me was supposed to mean freedom. Freedom from the oppressive nature of living in a small community where every single stray hair on your head or misspoken word were under the microscope every hour of every day. And it was. ... Kind of.

I mean, I did love that I was finally in charge of myself and managing my own life. But I went to my college knowing that my high school boyfriend was going there. And I expected to walk into college with a life where I would already fit. And boy, was I wrong.

I was a somewhat social person and I tried really hard to be like the rest of the people in my dorm and leave my door open whenever I was home. I even made a few really good friends. But for the most part, it was really difficult for me. I actually missed being some place where everyone knew (too much about) me.

It didn't help that my roommate was kind of a wildcard. And I don't mean that she was a wild partier or drinker or anything like that. But within the first three days of college, she dumped her boyfriend from home, decided to date a guy from down the hall, and he quickly became a fixture in our room. They were courteous enough to never actually have sex while I was sleeping there, but he wasn't courteous enough to refrain from walking around in nothing but boxers in what was already a very cramped space for two girls under 5'5", let alone a guy who was well over six feet tall and ate all the food I'd managed to store up. He snored all night long and would occasionally serenade my roommate to sleep. It sounds sweet, but trust me when I tell you that I've heard cats mating in my backyard that had better intonation.

And the piece de resistance? One Tuesday, I returned to my dorm room after a long weekend away and found that something about my bed was not quite right. The pillows and collection of stuffed animals was slightly askew. My pillows weren't as fluffed as they had been when I'd left the Thursday before. And then I spotted it -- a piece of white fabric peeking out from behind a throw pillow. Nothing on my bed was white. It was all light pink, medium pink, dark pink, hot pink, fuschia -- you get the picture.

What was this white thing?

Tighty whities.

And that's when I went down to my housing director in the building and said I wanted to be put on the waitlist for a single room. I wasn't willing to move in with someone else in my building -- I knew all the people who had an extra bed in their room and I was not about to leave one disaster zone only to walk into another situation even more awkward than the first.

Once I was on the list, I stripped my bed, washed everything twice, remade it, then walked across the street from my dorm to this little shop that was sort of a cross between a concession stand, a drug store, and a convenience store. Like a college version of 7-Eleven, where you can use your meal dollars and points, and where they charge you extra because they know most students going there don't have a car and can't go anywhere else.

At this convenience store, I bought lots of plastic silverware, as well as a few ladles, a pair of tons, and even a can opener. The next time I left for a weekend, I put all these things under the comforter and sheets on my bed. When I returned that next weekend, my bed looked almost perfect. My roommate later asked me, "Why is there silverware and sharp stuff under the comforter on your bed?" To which I answered, loudly, "WHY DO YOU KNOW IT'S THERE?"

It was an amicable split in the sense that she was glad to be living away from me and I was glad to be living away from her. She and her boyfriend were happy to help me move up three floors to a nice room where I turned the spare bed into a couch of sorts and lived out the next four months in bliss.

The point? I was an awkward college freshman. I had awkward, overwhelming, weird experiences. I also felt like I couldn't be myself in my own room for those first few months, hiding my monitor when I was on Fan Forum or writing fan fiction, missing characters I'd only seen on TV but had grown close to in my writing, longing for my friends on the Internet, lamenting my so-called boyfriend because this was sooooo not what I signed up for.

It's for all these reasons and then some that I related to and LOVED Fangirl with every fiber of my being.

I too found comfort in the characters I'd known since long before I went to college, characters who had been a focus for me even when I was in high school and felt different than most of my classmates, but where I tried to pretend that I didn't feel that way.

I loved the cleverness of the Simon Snow series. It actually made me wish that it WERE a real series. I spent the whole time thinking to myself, "Rainbow, my love, will you write these books, please?" I know they were supposed to be an allusion to Harry Potter, but Simon Snow sounds like it might be just as good, if not better.

Cath faces a lot of different struggles at college, especially when it comes to relationships -- friendships, family, romance. She struggles to try and categorize people that she once felt differently about. And she feels so isolated from her twin sister. I can't imagine what that must feel like, because I don't have a twin sister. But I know what it feels like to have my sister in California and me here in Michigan and not a week goes by that I don't shed a tear and just want a hug from her.

And I also know that when I went off to college, the previously mentioned ex-boyfriend had been my best friend since I was six. At that that point in my life, there was NO ONE I trusted more than him. He promised he'd be there for me. We'd made a plan to go to this place together. When he'd graduated the year before me, I spent lots of time with him at that school. At first, I'd seemed to fit so seamlessly into his life. But as he started to grow and as I was still in high school, suddenly, there was a huge gap we couldn't seem to bridge and it hurt so badly.

I loved the lack of drama in this story, the sort of fake plot twists that cheapen a good story. I loved the fact that it dealt with real issues, not fabricated issues. I loved how Cath and Wren both went to college expecting certain things, certain college stereotypes, and then having those expectations fall flat, only for them to both realize by the end that even those missteps and disappointments ultimately led to them discovering new things about themselves. College and young adulthood is all about finding yourself and trying to define who you are or pieces of who you are. Both Cath and Wren struggle with this, but both make progress towards overcoming this. And Cath, in particular, comes out with a lot thicker skin.

Something that was really true to life was Wren's relationship with her roommate, Courtney. So many people who go in blind to the roommate process and then spend all summer or emailing each other and convincing themselves that they are going to be best friends for life. That this is the perfect pair and that the gods of college housing have smiled down on them. But the truth is that living with someone you've never met is hardly ever a perfect experience. This is true even with people you know well and love dearly. Learning to mesh two lives together like that is tricky. And like most college freshmen, Courtney shows her true colors when Wren is in trouble and bails on her. Match made in heaven, huh? But again -- this grittiness is so, so real.

One of the things I loved the most was Reagan and Cath's friendship. I spent a lot of time reading it wishing that I'd gotten a girl like Reagan for my roommate freshman year of college. Despite her surly exterior, Reagan does have a soft streak. She takes Cath under her wing, mostly out of pity to start, something very real happens. Theirs is a situation where they jumped in blind and a beautiful thing happened -- true friendship blossomed over time, without them having to really force it like Wren and Courtney tried so desperately to do. I loved this juxtaposition between Reagan/Cath and Wren/Courtney.

I also love the exploration of family ties and the way those changes as you become a young adult and start truly taking care of yourself. The evolution of these characters' relationships with their families is so well written.

But most of all, I love that this YA contemporary isn't just about the love or the romance. It explores all the facets of being young and out on your own for the first time. I love that all these issues and all these extremely important relationships are charted, not just the romance between Cath and Levi, which is so lovely, sweet, and develops so beautifully throughout the novel.

I could honestly write about Fangirl for pages and pages and pages -- I actually probably already have, though I haven't checked it to be sure.

I can see where some people might not relate to Cath or the story line in this novel. I think there is a very specific audience that just won't be able to connect to the plot and the characters. But in my personal eyes, this book is absolutely breathtaking and one that I simply couldn't put down. I was captivated by the characters, it brought me back to a specific time in my life and made me recall memories that I'd actually forgotten.

This year, when I go to graduation parties for some of my cheerleaders who are seniors, this is a book that I'm going to be giving as gifts, because I think so many of them will read the book and, in those tough and lonely moments, remember that they are not alone and that these strange phases will pass, and eventually victorious moments will emerge and outweigh the uncomfortable or lonely. Just like Cath, they will start out college like a caterpillar. Throughout their first year or so, every strange moment, even second they miss home, every time they feel awkward or question what they are doing is a step in building their chrysalis so that, by the end of their first year, they will evolve into the butterfly they are destined to be.

1 comment:

  1. I grew up reading fan fiction and am a proud Potterhead. If you are/were a part of any fandom, this is a great ode to those memories.
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