Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell

In Fangirl (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), identical twin Cath goes off to college and finds that her sister, Wren, no longer wants to do the twin thing. Adrift, lonely, and anxious, Cath tries to navigate the waters of college on her own: her intimidating roommate, Reagan; Reagan’s cheerful friend?boyfriend? Levi, who walks Cath home from the library; and Nick, one of Cath’s classmates, with whom she partners for an assignment in their creative writing class. Meanwhile Cath continues working on her most enormous writing project ever: Carry On, Simon, a fanfic completion of the as-yet-unfinished, hugely popular series about Simon Snow. Cath and Wren have been wildly popular in fan fiction circles for years, and now Cath has to write installments of her fan fiction without her sister. Also a bunch of family dynamics and feelings.

The best thing about Rainbow Rowell, I’ve decided, is the take-no-prisoners precision of her descriptions. Reasonable people can disagree whether this is her actual best thing, but I think you’ll ultimately find that I’m right and you’re wrong. Here is a passage from Fangirl in which Wren and Cath are fighting about their mother, who left them when they were in third grade:

“Jesus Christ” –Wren threw her hands in the air, palms out– “could you stop being so melodramatic? For just five minutes? Please?”

No.” Cath slashed the air with her spatula. “This isn’t melodrama. This is actual drama. She left us. In the most dramatic way possible. . . .She left us. She broke Dad’s heart and maybe his brain, and she left us.”

Wren’s voice dropped. “She feels terrible about it, Cath.”

“Good!” Cath shouted. “So do I!” She took a step closer to her sister. “I’m probably going to be crazy for the rest of my life, thanks to her. I’m going to keep making fucked-up decisions and doing weird things that I don’t even realize are weird. People are going to feel sorry for me, and I won’t ever have any normal relationships — and it’s always going to be because I didn’t have a mother. Always. That’s the ultimate kind of broken. The kind of damage you never recover from. I hope she feels terrible. I hope she never forgives herself.”

“Don’t say that.” Wren’s face was red, and there were tears in her eyes. “I’m not broken.”

There weren’t any tears in Cath’s eyes. “Cracks in your foundation.” She shrugged.

“Fuck that.”

“Do you think I absorbed all the impact? That when Mom left, it hit my side of the car? Fuck that, Wren. She left you, too.”

“Cracks in your foundation” and “when Mom left it hit my side of the car” are so good I almost can’t take it. It’s this kind of thing that I’m taking about: Rainbow Rowell has a particular gift for naming the narratives her characters have about themselves. Wren is the strong twin, the outgoing twin; but as Cath rightly points out here, that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t harmed by her mother’s abandonment. The harm just shows up in different ways, but it’s harder for Wren to acknowledge, because it isn’t built into the family narrative of her. To have Rowell describe it so perfectly, as she does everything, just makes my heart sing.

Which leads me to my second point: There isn’t nearly enough of Wren in this book. As with Eleanor and Park, the family stuff is remarkable and moving but takes a back seat to the love story. Unlike Eleanor and Park, Fangirl puts us inside the head of only one half of the romantic pair — Cath’s — with the result that Levi sometimes feels underdeveloped. He’s a sweet, sweet, sweet dear: Fine. But what are the cracks in his foundation? It’s not that I don’t want Cath to be happy with a sweet and patient boy; but the Avery family dynamics are so superb and nuanced that I got greedy for more. I wanted to know, once Levi and Cath started dating, what the narratives between them were and where that caused friction.

Including excerpts in your book from another book that doesn’t actually exist is a thing I wish more authors did. I can’t think of a time that a book has done this and I haven’t liked it, and Fangirl is no exception. I’d have been okay without the excerpts from the “real” Simon Snow books, but the fan fiction excerpts were terrific. Since Cath’s creative writing teacher gives her an extraordinary amount of leeway throughout the book, it’s good to have regular reminders that Cath’s writing merits it.

Here’s a gripe, though. A very small gripe. At some point, Levi or somebody mentions Harry Potter, and it took me ten miles out of the book to have this gripey argument inside my head. A world that contains Simon Snow (a clear Harry Potter substitute) cannot also have Harry Potter. Simon Snow is so clearly intended to be like Harry Potter that it’s not worthwhile (in my opinion) hanging a lampshade on the similarity. In Cath’s world, which is exactly like ours apart from this one detail, Harry Potter never existed and they had Simon Snow instead. You can trust readers to accept that, I think.

Fangirl is ultimately a little gentler to its characters than Eleanor and Park, in terms of how their situations resolve, but it’s Eleanor and Park‘s equal in lovableness and insightfulness. In case the blogosphere hasn’t convinced you of this yet, I remind you again that Rainbow Rowell is an author well worth watching.

  • Someday I will read this! Although I agree that the Harry mention seems egregious!

    • Gin Jenny

      Yep, definitely an unnecessary shoutout. I picked up the parallels perfectly well on my own!

  • Maybe that’s why I far and away preferred E&P. I thought Fangirl was too crowded with issues that weren’t explored enough. And the cheese factor of Cath and Wren (ugh!) was enough to make me gag. That said, I do think Rowell is freaking amazing overall, and I can’t wait to read Attachments and Landline.

    • Gin Jenny

      Oh yeah, she’s definitely amazing overall. I didn’t love Attachments, but I’m very very excited for Landline.

      I was surprised at the slenderness of the margin by which I preferred E&P. I did prefer it, but I think Fangirl has a lot of excellent virtues of its own.

  • This reminds me (for the millionth time) that I need to read this one. Even though I enjoyed Eleanor & Park, I think I would like this a little more, so I need to pick it up soon!

    • Gin Jenny

      A little more, really? How come? Just the metafictiony aspect?

  • You make some great points here. I especially agree with “take-no-prisoners precision of her descriptions.” And yes: “Avery family dynamics are so superb and nuanced that I got greedy for more.” Re the Harry Potter mention – yes, I felt the same way when I read it, but I decided she included it for readers who had no experience with Harry Potter. As time goes on, there are probably more and more….

    • Gin Jenny

      Do you think? Surely the adult generation of Harry Potter readings is passing on their love to Harry Potter to the next batch of little ones?

  • I spent one weekend obsessively reading E&P, and on Monday it was a bit disorienting to leave that world behind & go to work with, you know, real people. I’m also a fan of books inside other books – though it usually makes me wish they were real. I’m adding this to my list – thanks!

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahah, yeah, it always makes me wish they were real. Less so in this case than normally, because of course Simon Snow can’t exist in the same world as Harry Potter, and I’d rather keep Harry Potter.

  • You’re definitely right. Rowell does a great job with her descriptions. They are really fully rounded, almost living descriptions of people.

    Blah, that Harry Potter/Simon Snow stuff was really odd. I really can’t imagine them existing in the same world without any problems. They’re too similar for that to really work.

    • Gin Jenny

      Yep, agreed. Rowell is amazing that way.

  • I agree, I would have liked more Wren, too!

    • Gin Jenny

      Wouldn’t it be interesting to read a parallel book that focuses on what Wren’s doing the whole first year of college? I’d read that.

  • I have Eleanor and Park lined up as my next audiobook, and that will be my first Rowell book. But you have me intrigued about Fangirl, as well!

    • Gin Jenny

      Aw, well, if you’re going to start with anything, Eleanor and Park’s the way to go. I’m sure you’ll love it!

  • Excellent point about Rowell’s descriptive prowess. And agreed with your comment above about the book from Wren’s PoV because yes please, I would like this. Now you’re making me want to re-read this. And E&P

    • Gin Jenny

      Haha, I’m making me want to reread them too.

  • I don’t know which of Rowell’s is my favorite but I probably agree with you – E&P by a very slim margin. I liked the family dynamics, too, and agree that she could have spent a lot more time on them and I would have happily read on and on.

    • Gin Jenny

      Same. I’m hoping there is plenty of family dynamics in Landline. I can’t get enough.

  • I haven’t read Rowell but I’m glad so many peoole find much to love about her books. Fanfic is another phenomenon that has passed me by but it does seem odd to mention Harry Potter in this context. Maybe she did it for people like me who haven’t read the HP books and probably wouldn’t make the connection without a hint?

    • Gin Jenny

      I guess, but I don’t think the connection really needed to be made. It seems to me like the book works perfectly fine in a universe where Harry Potter doesn’t exist. Even if somebody’s not aware of Harry Potter, they’re probably aware of fanfiction; and I think the book STILL works even if you don’t even know that fanfiction exists.

  • I think you’re right about Levi being a little underdeveloped… but I didn’t care. I just found him so charming and wonderful with all of Cath’s questions and anxiety that I wanted my own Levi. That said, it would have been nice if their little spat at the end had actually been a fight instead of a disagreement over in about five minutes. I think that should have been a chink in his armor that just didn’t get explored much.

  • Heather

    I cannot WAIT for you to read Landline. *whispers* There’s more hand holding! Eek! I’m loving it as much as I loved E&P so far.

    • Gin Jenny


  • Dude. This review is FANTASTIC. I completely agree with you about Simon Snow and Harry Potter not being able to exist in the same universe. And you picked one of the best passages to quote. Love it!

    • Gin Jenny

      Thanks! I really loved that passage. It hurt my heart.

  • I did like it that the characters mentioned Harry Potter so it didn’t seem that Simon Snow was supposed to be Harry Potter. And I liked that Cath is the focus of everything, and not her twin or her boyfriend. I like how fannish Cath is, and how the book shows what it’s like for one person to live so deeply in the fan universe she has helped to create.

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahaha, now I feel terribly negative. I mean, Simon Snow is supposed to be Harry Potter really — not exactly the same, but enough the same that they can’t both exist in the same world. Surely?

  • aartichapati

    I have not read this one, but you make it sound swell! I believe Rowell has a book for adults coming out soon and I wonder how awesomely articulate her descriptions of life will be there.

    • Gin Jenny

      Oh, you have to read it, Aarti. I think you would like it. Have you read Eleanor and Park? I can’t remember if you have or not.

  • YOU’RE RIGHT AND EVERYONE ELSE IS WRONG!!! OMG! I read that excerpt and now I want to read the damn book. But first, I need to read People in the Trees. 🙂

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahahaha, THANK YOU. And yes! Read People in the Trees, then this. I think Fangirl will make a good, like, recovery book after you finish with the nastiness of the narrator in People in the Trees.

  • Yeah, the HP thing… I agree with you, they’re just TOO similar that it doesn’t make sense that they’d both exist and both have the huge following that they did. Especially not if they both existed at about the same time. Maybe in another 20 years it would be more believable.

    I will say that I could have done without the Simon Snow snippets, though. I get why she included them, but they pulled me out of the story. Maybe I’d feel differently if we only got the fanfic snippets, since those are more intricately tied to Cath.

  • Now I just want to sit here and bask in the glorious perfection of Rowell’s descriptions.

    I think my favourite thing about them is that they always work in service to EMOTIONAL TRUTH (caps necessary). Rowell is so very, very good at EMOTIONAL TRUTH, the presence of which allowed me to enjoy ATTACHMENTS even though the premise is so totally squicky.

  • I enjoyed the comments just as much as the review! It’s funny because I only have one Rainbow Rowell on my wishlist and that is Fangirl. I know E&P is getting raves everywhere, but its description didn’t appeal to me as much as Fangirl’s did. I fee safe starting there and hoping the strength of her writing will drive me to pick up E&P.

  • Word on that Harry thing. They would have been, at best, competing titles; Simon Snow is so clearly an expy of Harry Potter, down to co-opting the entire phenomenon. Harry Potter can exist in this world, but it probably wasn’t very successful if it did. There are actually two TVTropes entries dealing with exactly these sort of shenanigans: Different World, Different Movies and Celebrity Paradox. Delicious cultural alternate universe stuffs!

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  • So I totally started checking out the world of fanfic after reading this because I thought it would make the feeling of the awesomeness of the book last longer. It didn’t.

    Normal people would just pick up E&P and enjoy another story but I’m not normal and I have this stupid issue where I “save” a book I know I’m going to love for the perfect moment that never comes until one day I eventually realize I’m being stupid and I need to just read the damn book. I think this review has reminded me that I loved Rowell so much I need to just read all her books all the time. So thank you.

  • Riv

    I chuckled more than once when reading this review 🙂 I’ve seen other people pointing out the Harry Potter-Simon Snow problem as well, so it’s like what was the author thinking when she did that. Reading The Literary Omnivore’s comment a few up, I guess it’s possible that Harry Potter exists in this world but isn’t as popular… That’s an interesting thought. Given that I’m so invested in details regarding Fangirl, maybe I should actually read the book as well 🙂

  • I thought the Harry Potter shoutout was Rowell’s little wink. As far as I’ve been able to tell, a LOT of readers missed it (at least, some of the ones I personally know). For me, the actual logic behind the reference is irrelevant – I don’t think the strength of Rainbow Rowell’s books is in the logic

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