To a generation that has lived through the era of Harry Potter, Rainbow Rowell’s “Fangirl,” a novel about what it’s like to be an ardent fan of a pop culture phenomenon, will seem like familiar territory. At the center of Rowell’s second YA novel is eighteen-year-old Cath Avery, a college freshman obsessed with the mega-popular Simon Snow series. At school, Cath juggles classes with her number one priority: writing “Carry On, Simon,” a novel-length fanfiction that has propelled Cath to stardom within the Simon Snow fandom. With the release of the last book in the series looming, Cath is feeling the pressure from both herself and her devoted fans to tell her version of Simon’s story before the official book is released.
While much of “Fangirl” revolves heavily around Cath’s involvement in fandom, Rowell’s novel is much more than a depiction of fan culture. It is simultaneously a moving and, at times, heart-wrenching story of Cath’s struggle to find her place as a young adult. Ditched by her twin sister, Wren, whom is far more outgoing and wants to experience college life on her own, Cath feels alone and abandoned. She grapples with crippling anxiety, which drives her to spend most of her time in the dorms, avoiding the outside world as much as possible and taking refuge in the Simon Snow fandom on the Internet. Rowell depicts Cath’s anxiety with painful clarity, revealing how even the most seemingly mundane activities, like eating in the dining hall or making eye contact with other people, are absolutely overwhelming for Cath, and it is hard not to sympathize with her.
As the first semester rolls on, Cath is met with a cast of characters all trying to pull her out of her shell. There’s Nick, the egotistical, wannabe writer from Cath’s Fiction Writing class, whom she meets at the library twice a week to collaborate with on writing projects. Then there’s Professor Piper, the Fiction Writing instructor who urges Cath to see her full potential as a writer of fiction, not just fanfiction. But at the forefront are Reagan, Cath’s snarky roommate, and Reagan’s infuriatingly charming best friend (and ex), Levi, who can’t seem to leave Cath alone. Cath is initially resistant to Levi’s charm – after all, he is her opposite in every way: gregarious, outgoing, and definitely not a Simon Snow fanatic – but he soon becomes an important fixture in her life, a boy who accepts Cath for all her geeky awkwardness. While Levi’s entrance into Cath’s life is certainly an experience that changes her for the better, it is not the be-all, end-all resolution to her problems – something that sets Rowell’s novel apart from so many others in the YA romance genre. Cath still has to deal with her anxiety, her “crazy” dad, her out-of-control sister, and the mother who has made a sudden unwelcome reappearance in her life.
Hilarious, heartbreaking, and genuine, “Fangirl” is a must-read for anyone who knows what it feels like to not quite fit in.