I was meaning to focus on middle grade and teen speculative fiction in my Armchair Cybils reading, but I couldn’t resist this story of an introverted book girl starting college. This one is nominated in the Teen Fiction category, though, so it still counts.
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013
Cather (who goes by Cath) and Wren are twins. Ever since their mother left them when they were eight, they’ve done everything together. Most especially, Simon Snow has kept them going: the magical books (similar to but not quite Harry Potter), the movies. They’ve even made names for themselves as authors of Simon Snow fan fiction.
Now, they’re starting college. Wren, the outgoing twin, has decided that they need separate dorm rooms. Cath is heartbroken, not interested in getting to know people without Wren to break the ice, and most interested in figuring out how to finish her top-rated novel, meant to finish the series with her own twist, before the actual author publishes the final book.
But college is harder than high school in every way. The classes are harder, food is harder. Ignoring the people who want to make friends with her and figuring out which of them are genuine is harder yet. And on top of all of that mostly normal college stuff is monitoring their bipolar, workaholic father from a distance to make sure he’s taking care of himself.
It takes Cath a long time to figure out how to write fiction that isn’t fan fiction, even though she’s made it to an upper-level writing class. And it takes even longer for her to notice that her roommate’s on-again off-again boyfriend, Levi, is hanging around the room even when Reagan is gone because he’s interested in her.
Excerpts from Cath’s fan fiction – which focusses on her invented romantic relationship between hero Simon Snow and his arch-rival Basil (think Draco Malfoy, but a vampire) – are frequent. This might bother some people, but I enjoyed the glimpse of insight into a captivating twice-fictional world.
This is a book billed as a teen book that might better be described as “new adult”, as all the characters are in college. It felt very true both to my own experience of college, with the forced eye-opening to different lifestyles. There is drinking (not by Cath), though the drinking has consequences, and mentions of teens having had sex. I would recommend it to older teens, especially those starting to think about college, as well as to geeky adults.
I loved Cath so very, very much, and my description of it so far feels inadequate to describe how very hard I fell for her. My writing about books isn’t fan fiction, but I felt how she could love books so deeply that it would both help and hurt her in connecting with the rest of the world. Even though she’s so vulnerable in traditional ways, when their mother tries to reestablish easy contact with them, without taking any blame for her actions, Cath refuses to let her mother take the easy way out.
I didn’t love Wren as much as Cath – it was hard to see how she could be so very oblivious when Cath needed her – but she got somewhat better towards the end. I loved the slow, slow romance with Levi, loved that Levi himself (like my own sweet son) was a dyslexic book lover, enjoying the stories, but needing to hear them to understand them best, as well as his smile and mad hugging skills.
Pair this with Harry Potter, or of course some good fan fiction. This would also work well with the (much bloodier) graphic novel series The Unwritten, and the college experience reminds me of the equally vivid but much older college experience described in Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin You can read other thoughts on Fangirl at Angieville: