Friday, January 10, 2014

Review: "Fangirl" by Rainbow Rowell

 When Cath leaves home for her first year of college, she's not ready for change. She already has everything that she needs: a loving father, a twin to be her guaranteed best friend, and twenty thousand hits on her fanfiction about the popular Simon Snow series.

But Wren doesn't want to be Cath's other half anymore. For the first time in her life, Cath is alone, living among strangers. She doesn't know where the dining hall is. Her new roommate is too loud, too pushy, too attractive. Her professors think fanfiction is plagiarism.

Not to mention the presence of boys--ones made of flesh and blood rather than paper and ink. Boys in her classes, boys in her room, boys she can't control with a few taps on a keyboard.

When will Cath have time to finish her fanfiction with all these changes getting in the way?

  2.5 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)

Dear reader, let's begin a new year... by looking back to our freshman year of college. Specifically, to the most embarrassing parts of freshman year. That's what Rainbow Rowell gives us in Fangirl.

Most of us have that book (or movie, or Broadway musical, or video game) we never really grew out of loving. I own Chrono Trigger earrings and a painted figurine of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. One of my friends has a framed map of the Land of Oz. Another still listens to the audiobooks of Star Wars when she's on a long trip. It's our own private, casual love, taken out to cherish and then put away again.

Cath isn't that kind of casual fan. She's the kind of fan who has nothing but Harry Potter Simon Snow T-shirts in her wardrobe, dresses up in costume for midnight releases, covers her half of the dorm with posters and hand-drawn fanart, and brags about how many hits her smutty fanfiction gets to anyone who makes the mistake of remarking on gee, you're really into this children's book series, aren't you?

I won't pull punches here, dear reader: Cath is terrible. I delayed writing this book grump because I wanted to understand exactly why the book grated on me, and it finally dawned on me that the narrator is a person I do not admire in any way.

Oh, she's very human, very realistic, but there is little there to like. She uses her insecurity to justify being self-absorbed and rude. She wields guilt deliberately to manipulate people. She not-so-secretly believes that her fanfiction is better than the original books that inspired it. She gets angry with her boyfriend for being nice to everyone, because it makes her feel less special. She knowingly pursues her roommate's boyfriend and makes out with him. (At that point I was flinching, wondering how long it had been since this computer-bound shut-in had showered.) Said roommate is extremely gracious about the situation, eventually gives Cath her blessing, and lays out extremely mature ground rules for the future. Yet Cath openly tells her roommate that she (Cath) is always going to be jealous of her past relationship with the boy in question.

Y'know, the boy she just stole. Classy, Cath.

I understand why Cath is the way that she is. Her thoughts, feelings, and motivations are conveyed well and make sense to me. I just wonder why Rowell, the author,  didn't give her any good traits beyond "not a murderer." I suspect that Rowell assumed that most readers will look on Cath fondly, remembering their own awkward fangirl/fanboy days, and overlook the glaring lack of anything positive about her.

All of my sympathies lay with her roommate, Reagan, who's a saint--but a saint of the old Russian burn-your-enemies-at-a-dinner-party breed.
"So why aren't you living with your sister?"

"She wanted to meet new people," Cath said.
"You make it sound like she broke up with you."

Cath speared another Brussels sprout. "She lives in Schramm Hall," she said to her tray. When she looked up, Reagan was scowling at her.

"You're making me feel sorry for you again," Reagan said.

Cath turned her fork on Reagan. "Don't feel sorry for me. I don't want you to feel sorry for me."

"I can't help it," Reagan said. "You're really pathetic. [...] You don't have any friends, your sister dumped you, you're a freaky eater... And you've got some weird thing about Simon Snow."
"I object to every single thing you said."

Reagan chewed. And frowned. She was wearing dark red lipstick.  

"I have lots of friends," Cath said. [...] "Most of my friends went to other schools. Or they're online."

"Internet friends don't count."

"And I don't have a weird thing with Simon Snow," Cath said. "I'm just really active in the fandom."

"What the fuck is 'the fandom'?"

"You wouldn't understand," Cath sighed, wishing she hadn't used that word, knowing if she tried to explain herself any further, it would just make it worse. Reagan wouldn't believe--or understand--that Cath wasn't just a Simon fan. She was one of the fans. A first-name-only fan with fans of her own.

If she told Reagan that her Simon fics regularly got twenty thousand hits... Reagan would just laugh at her.

Plus, saying all that out loud would make Cath feel like a complete asshole.

"You've got Simon Snow heads on your desk," Reagan said.

"Those are commemorative busts."

"I feel sorry for you, and I'm going to be your friend."

"I don't want to be your friend," Cath said as sternly as she could. "I like that we're not friends."

"Me, too," Regan said. "I'm sorry you ruined it by being so pathetic."

Rowell's prose clunks a bit in places, and she has a bad habit of placing character descriptions at the end of the scene (a trick I've never seen before, and hope to never see again.) The book doesn't have a strong sense of plot, but perhaps that's an excusable weakness. The story is more or less "what happens in the first year of college," so maybe we should let the time limit stand in for a clear narrative arc. But this is a grumpy book review, so maybe we shouldn't.

Nevertheless, Rowell writes good characters, all of whom seemed very familiar to me--even the ones I didn't like. My favorite subplot (sub-story-element?), about the tensions in Cath's family, is handled expertly. I sympathized with the struggle Cath and Wren go through trying to support their severely bipolar father, when he should have been supporting them. I also felt a lot for Wren's attempts to establish herself as a separate entity from her insular, clingy twin, and her refusal to sacrifice her own life on the altar of this broken family... even though the way Wren chooses to liberate herself is foolish and self-destructive.

As for Cath's love life (that doesn't involve a fictional character), it's sweet and awkward and reminds me of my first romance. Sometimes in a cringe-inducing way. I haven't the faintest idea what he sees in her, but if we hand-wave Cath's lack of personal appeal, the development of their relationship is charming.

Ironically, the parts of the book that revolve around the Harry Potter Simon Snow fandom are the worst.

Cath's inability to draw socially acceptable boundaries around her hobby is unpleasant to read, but also understandable. In college I knew people who would have turned in romantic Harry/Draco Simon/Baz fanfiction for an assignment, and cried with offended incomprehension when the teacher told them it was plagiarism (and also not well written.) I don't fault Rowell for showing how deeply Cath has involved herself in fandom to evade the Real World. It's unflattering to her narrator,  but also realistic.

The part that I'm complaining about, the part that was not perhaps absolutely necessary, was starting off each chapter with "excerpts" from the Harry Potter Simon Snow novels. Or the many, many, many pages of Cath's fanfiction that replace the text of whole chapters. Don't get me wrong, her reading aloud to Levi to bond with him is cute, but I don't actually need to read this much terrible fanfic. Sixty out of the book's 433 pages are fanfiction. That's almost 14% of the total volume of the book wasted on something that is neither plot, nor character development, nor fun to read.

Since the Simon Snow series is blatantly a Harry Potter stand-in, awkwardly lampshaded in-text, Rowell doesn't actually need to write a new "series" for the reader to understand what Cath is geeking out about. The attempt to "show" Simon Snow makes me feel like the whole book was an excuse for Rowell to publish her own fanfiction of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy, with names changed to protect the innocent.

Which works for some people (I'm looking at you, E.L. James.) It doesn't work here.

Fangirl isn't a complete disaster. It does a lot of things well with the complexity of relationships (familial, romantic, and friendly) and paints a true yet sympathetic portrait of the embarrassing depths of fandom. It's a quick read that I think other recovering Harry Potter addicts will get a kick out of reading. Unfortunately, Rowell made a lot of missteps when it came to the (lack of) plot or developing a narrator worth cheering for. And the amount of bad fanfiction the author forces down the book's throat is just unforgivable to me.

As a side note: the cover of Fangirl was drawn by Noelle Stevenson, one of my favorite contemporary artists. You've probably seen her cartoons of "The Broship of the Ring" being passed around. She also draws a great webcomic called Nimona, which is about a medieval scientist supervillain and the little shapeshifter who volunteers to be his minion. 

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