Cath broke open a box of protein bars. She had four more boxes and three giant jars of peanut butter she shoved under her bed. If she paced herself, she might not have to face the dining hall until October.
I bought Fangirl around mid-December, in an impulsive purchase I excused as “buying a Christmas present for myself”. When I bought it, I really did not know what I was expecting. My train of thought was “fangirl, okay” and “ooh, the heroine is named Cath, I love that name*” and “what, she writes fanfiction? Must. Buy.” I ended up finishing the book just last week, so it definitely counts as one of my 2015 Reading Challenge books, right? Right? Whatever, I ticked the “book with one word on the title” box, and you can’t challenge me on this.
As you may have surmised from that paragraph, the main heroine is called Cath and she writes fanfiction. Specifically, she writes Drarry. Well, okay, not Draco Malfoy/Harry Potter really because that would create legal problems I guess, but the book universe has a Harry Potter equivalent called Simon Snow. Cath writes the fanfiction for the Simon/Baz pairing, and that’s the Drarry of Simon Snow books. The novel follows Cath’s first year in university, which, according to love interest Levi in the book, is like dog years in that so many things happens and you grow so much.
Levi is right; Cath does grow up in the span of the book. When we first meet her, she’s trying to adjust to the changes in her life. She is not rooming with her twin sister and lifelong roommate Wren** — or according to the book, “built-in best friend” — but with an upperclassman called Reagan who first comes off as intimidating. She’s too nervous to talk to anyone; she eats protein bars that she stashes in her room because the dining hall is terrifying. She does not have time for her fanfiction and thousands of readers. She loses touch with Wren, who is now becoming even more so The Cool One and Cath remains The Odd One.
In short, Cath at the beginning and majority of the book is a bundle of nervous breakdown and awkwardness who reminds me a lot of myself in my worst days. There is even a very good scene in which she is in creative writing class and they are discussing why someone writes. While the class is busy giving answers, Cath says silently to herself, to escape.
And escape she does. Increasingly, she spends more time writing her fanfiction than working on her creative writing class coursework. She befriends classmate Nick, who is sort of cute but even from a mile away obviously self-centered. She fights with her sister. She starts getting to know Reagan and Reagan’s boyfriend-sort-of Levi (turns out he’s her high school ex, and now they’re just friends). She worries about her bipolar father. She fights with Wren, who is visibly more and more often drunk in frat house parties. Her mother, who left the family when she was eight, tries to contact her.
It all works out in the end, of course, because that is how stories are, but the journey to it is fascinating. It’s not especially full of twists — banish any expectation of surprising plot twists here — but it’s real. Rainbow Rowell writes characters who are understated, but alive. Reagan is brash, but not unkind, but not really a good person either. Levi is a good person, but he is not Romance Novel Love Interest staple; he is neither the hottest guy in school nor a part of any love triangle. Wren comes off as shallow, but she has her issues. Nick is a dick. Cath is a mess, but she grows. And these characters work together creating a story undeniably alive.
The reason why I called this book coming-of-age is because I really can’t put it in any other category. It has romance, but it’s not about the romance. It’s marketed so, because that is how this world markets books targeted to the female young ladies, but it really is not. It’s about Cath’s life, which is so much more than just Levi. Cath is not estranged from her family in pursuit of romance; one can even say that she clings to her family so that it’s hard for her to see life beyond it. It is her growth into an adult that is the story here, framed with how she clings to her own fantasy world and is afraid to let fanfiction go, only to realize in the end that she can have both: write original fiction and fanfiction, just like how she can stay in touch with her father and sister and make new friends and live her own life.
It is not what I expected of a book titled Fangirl. I expected the fangirling part to be more prominent, but beyond several scenes and moments that mark Cath as a fangirl, it does not feel like it’s about a fangirl. Which, don’t get me wrong, totally works for this book. It’s just that if you’re expecting for a story that delves into the inner working of fandoms, this story is not it. In fact, the excerpts of Simon Snow and Simon Snow fanfiction scattered in between chapters feel like it’s dragging the story down. I’m sure Rainbow Rowell means to make the excerpts a mirror of the events of the chapter, but it just doesn’t feel so most of the time.
I finished the book with a sigh. It’s not a book I will fangirl about (ha, ha) and even as I close it I felt, well, that was that. Only now typing it down I realize that it is so much better than what it felt reading it, and in that I suppose it is a testament of how realistic its depiction of daily life of a university student is.
*I love that name because, ey, Katharina, Catherine, Cath. Yeah. Completely biased reason.
*Wren is named so because when their mother realizes that she’s having twins, she’s too lazy to think up another name. And so the twins are named Cather and Wren. Catherwren. Catherine. Ha.