Review: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

FangirlFangirl by Rainbow Rowell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Initial reaction: I can already tell that this is probably a novel that may not strike everyone the same way, especially given its topic, but I really liked this book. This is a narrative that’s very much in the vein of slice of life and takes its time in pacing (which I think dragged its heels in places), but I found it held my attention and I liked the interactions of the characters. This novel struck home with me in a few places for identification, but it does have caveats.

Full review:

So this review will be a bit different from my usual fare, probably an experiment in some regards because I’ve never included gifs in my reviews before (nor have I started making gifs until now, though I promise I won’t go too crazy with them).

It’s usually never weird for me to include a piece of music or link to other media, but for this?  I’m trying to figure out where to begin. Usually you see reviews on Goodreads or even BL where people can include animated images showing *feelings*, and all the different measures of expression you can get over a work that they gush about, feel the weight of crushing disappointment or rage, or other measures in the emotional kaleidoscope.  Sometimes it’s toward the characters and perceptions of their physical qualities conveyed in the work that are enough to get people reacting to it in various measures of *squee*.

I am not used to this.  I usually give media that reminds me of a work sometimes like a song name or lyrical mention or link to some other media that ties into a work thematically, but I’m not used to conveying my *feels* via picture, not all the time.

In this case, I’m willing to make an exception because of the nature of this review, which lends to topics of fangirlish tendencies, fandom, and even writing fanfic.  And this leans into personal territory for me because Cath…goodness I saw so much of my experience in Cath, even if in personality she’s nothing like me.

So I’m going to have some fun with this, mixing it up a bit.

I guess you can ask me what fandom I’m a part of, and I could give you some very vague answer like…I’m a fan of animation. But that’s actually true. Have been for most of my life, I’m just a fan of stories told that way – whether it may be from stories I grew up with or even more recent series like Avatar the Last Airbender/The Legend of Korra.

I’ve heard all kinds of criticisms, saying “Rose, you’re almost 30 years old, you’re still into cartoons? Don’t you need to grow up by now?”  Well if you spend most of your life being invested in animated stories (which are far more expansive than just being for one age group), and it’s never left you, then it’s a passion or hobby just as much as anything else.  I can’t claim to be a creator of animated works like Walt Disney or Don Bluth, Osamu Tezuka or Hayao MIyazaki, but I still appreciate the stories told through the medium, and I put it on an equivalent passion to reading.  And with the quality of the animated stories that I love, it gives me a platform for my imagination to dance and play out in living color.

Sometimes the products of those dances are those I write about.  Thus…I write in fandom, I write fanfic for fun, as an exercise in creativity.  But I can confess that writing’s an itch I constantly scratch anyway.  But maybe it’s because we search for a good story, characters or dimensions in any media, don’t care which form it takes – animation, live action, music, written, etc.  That’s true for me too.

In picking up “Fangirl” – I understand (all too well) where Rowell’s narrative comes from in terms of having a protagonist dealing with being invested in something that other people don’t understand the passion for.

Rainbow Rowell’s “Fangirl” explores the life of Cather (Cath), a college freshman who is a total Simon Snow devotee.  Simon Snow is a mirror of Harry Potter basically, though Harry Potter is mentioned as an example of fandom in the book at one point.

Cath writes slash Simon Snow fic, gets well over 30,000 hits to it. (I live under a rock because I was happy with my 3,000 on my first fic. I wouldn’t even know what to do with myself.)  If she’s confident in nothing else, if but her fanfic measures.  So she’s got a clear, identifying passion when we meet her, but she’s socially awkward in just about everything else.

Now here comes the eerie similarities to Cath’s and my experiences.

Cath is a twin.  (So am I.)  Her sister attends the same school she does (this was true for me in grad studies, not undergrad.)  Cath is an introvert who finds it difficult to blend in her first year. (Introvert?  Here.  Socially awkward in first year?  Heck yeah! But I was in a special dormitory program where I had to interact in social activities on a regular basis. Some experiences were fun, but others completely exhausted me.)

Cath has no idea what she’s doing.

(Depending what matter you ask me on, this was true of my freshman experience too.)

For what it was worth, I liked following Cath’s experiences and learning about her family and small circle of friends.  There were factors that annoyed me such as her intentional distancing from social interaction, but I figured that was just a part of her own individual character flaw rather than a stereotyping of introversion. The whole expansion on other people’s perceptions to twins was too true (and Cath wasn’t even around her sister all that much, considering they hung in different social circles). Cath’s struggles with her family were especially palpable, given the illness of her father, the abandonment by their mother, the distancing of her twin (and a near collision course that isn’t without considerable weight), alongside Cath’s own insecurities.

I loved Levi and Cath’s roommate as characters.  Levi’s friendly and good humored, with his own flaws that Cath discovers in getting to know him.  I liked Levi’s relationship with Cath, and even more as he gets to know her in a slow-burn development measure.  That’s probably my favorite way of getting to know characters and their bonds versus the instalove I constantly see in YA and NA (and technically this can count as New Adult).

Cath tries to push herself in her studies, especially in an advanced level writing class that her teacher even admits she has talents for.  But when Cath turns in a work regarding her Simon Snow pursuits,  she gets the smackdown from her teacher rather quickly.

Cath struggles with her self-confidence in both her work and relationships, and that’s something I could identify with in turns.  I wanted to mentally give Cath the harisen treatment for turning in a fanfic as an individual, original work (because even I knew that was a no-no for a college assignment).  It’s a lesson she has to learn, though, and I’m glad it was shown.   I remember one of my writing professors saying he had to grade a student down for doing something similar.  But he was actually supportive of different creative forms of expression, including writing fanfic, just not for the assignment given.

Ultimately though, Cath has to juggle her relationships and trials to be able to survive her first year.  And it’s an eventful one that’s rather true to heart, and I really enjoyed it more than I thought I was going to.

There are some criticisms I have about it though. The narrative toggles between Cath’s experiences and relationships in her first year and the fanfic writing life – both from the original source of Simon Snow’s franchise, as well as Cath’s contributions with her sister in the fandom community.  I’ll admit this slowed the pacing of the entire work down considerably, and I think some of it could’ve been taken out to make the work feel less long and more fluid.

I also think it could’ve actually given a little more variation to the reflection on fandom life as well. You can have loud fangirls as well as quiet ones, you can have those that are a bit too indulgent and feel like life is getting in the way of their ability to play with the world, and you can have those that can balance the two spheres just fine.   At least this was a far, far superior effort to Mari Mancusi’s “Gamer Girl”, which tried to take on a young woman’s gamer life, but I felt like as much as we saw Cath’s dedication to Simon Snow and her fic, I don’t think it was actually felt all that much.

I mean, I could tell you about how much I love Darkwing Duck or Disney’s Aladdin, but unless you had some way of experiencing the media for yourself with knowing the emotional and palpable stakes, you wouldn’t know where that love originated from, right?

You wouldn’t be able to have the same intimate experience knowing about a duck crime fighter whose actual disguise is stepping outside his hero suit and adjusting to the demands of taking care of a girl he adopts.  But of course he has a way of getting into some interesting encounters and a devious streak (and a wicked cape too.  *jealous*)

Or following a well-intentioned street rat who fell in love with a princess and found a magic lamp that turned out to be very different than what he thought it would be.  And it’s not just the love story or humored parts of the journey, aforementioned street rat (whose fatal flaw tends to be telling one too many half truths) has to go through several try/fail cycles from clashes he ends up falling into, like, say, an evil sorcerer.

You have to know the story in order to be able to see the root of the “what ifs”  that come across, and I think that’s what many people who may not understand a fandom may not get if they don’t know the source material and understand that fandom goers play with tensions, emotional ties, conflict, stakes and figuring what drives that.  Like  the hero and the villain having established power plays of tension met with some odd form of complicated chemistry. Or villains generally getting up to mischief in random pursuits.

If we actually knew Simon Snow as an individual character apart from being a mirror image of Harry Potter, the translation wouldn’t be as much of an issue, I think.

But overall, I think I really enjoyed Rainbow Rowell’s “Fangirl”.

Overall score: 4/5 stars

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