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.
“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.