Fangirl (Rainbow Rowell)
For readers 13 years and up
“Professor Piper was always telling them to write about something close to their hearts, and there was nothing closer to Cath’s heart than Baz and Simon” (110).
I was delighted to discover Rainbow Rowell’s 2013 novel, Fangirl, which also offers two-for-the-price-of-one woman power: written by Rowell, it’s illustrated by Noelle Stevenson.) In Fangirl, identical twins Cath and Wren leave home for university, but while Wren is ready to dive into new experiences (a new roommate, new friends, parties, and more), Cath is far shyer, choosing to hide in her room with a jar of peanut butter rather than face the dining hall alone and spending her evenings working on a long piece of fanfiction. Faced with family issues (an estranged mother, a father living with mental illness, and a sister who is rapidly developing an alcohol problem), new relationships (her roommate, an older undergraduate, is extroverted, if not aggressive, and Cath also develops feelings for her roommate’s best friend, Levi), and fresh academic challenges (after being accepted into an upper-level creative writing course, she struggles to develop her own writing voice and to deal with idea-leeching classmate), Cath is an intriguing and multi-faceted protagonist.
And in terms of fandom and fangirls, Fangirl has a lot to offer. Cath, a university (college) freshman, is the popular author of a well-known piece of fanfiction (based on the fictional series, Simon Snow, clearly an homage to Harry Potter), and the novel never derides her for this. Instead, we see a young women with creativity, passion, and follow-through (one smart and capable enough to enter an upper-level course in her first semester), working on a major creative project, and instead of leading Cath to abandon fandom for “the real world,” the narrative recognises the validity and emotional significance of online communities. Rather than choose between online and offline, Cath opens her mind and her heart to welcome both into her life, slowly learning that the two are not mutually exclusive and that she does not have to abandon one love to allow another. Additionally, Cath’s—spoiler—eventual boyfriend, Levi, is a kind and believable character, as is—the admittedly less well-developed—Wren’s boyfriend, Jandro. (More on these guys in a moment!) On a structural note, Rowell punctuates Fangirl with excerpts from the fictional Simon Snow series as well as Cath’s fic, an interesting moves that works surprisingly well, offering snippets of stories that are engaging on their own.
This isn’t to say, though, that Rowell is impervious to critique. (Well, who is!?) To start, Rich in Colour and Angry Girl Comics both firmly outline racism in Rowell’s other young adult novel, Eleanor and Park, as does the Tumblr fandomshatewomen, which also offers instead-of recommendations.
Returning to Fangirl, while it is strong in its defence of fandom—particularly women fans, which is wonderful, given how they are subject to disproportionate amounts of hate—and in its crackdown on subtle, sexist exploitation in the classroom (Cath’s classmate, Nick, steals her ideas and creative labour under the guise of ‘working together’), it has some awkward and uncomfortable moments as well.
- Cath’s roommate, Reagan, who eventually becomes one of her best friends, appears intended to be humorously biting—Instead, she often comes across as mean, asking Cath if she’s “‘one of those freaky eaters'” (38), dissing Cath’s writing because “‘It’s already hard enough to make eye contact with [her]'” (48), and encouraging her friend to steal Cath’s food. Near the end of the novel, Wren points out, “She’s so mean to you” (442), which Cath denies, arguing “‘That’s just her way. I think I’m her best girl friend”” (442). No, friends: Girls and women are not supposed to cut each other down this way!
- Additionally, despite my interest in both of their characters and my belief in the development of their relationship (both behave badly in the beginning, but their behaviour is more attributable to awkwardness and social anxiety than anything else, and both are apologetic), I was uncomfortable, occasionally, with Cath’s treatment of Levi, who has a reading disability. Cath wonders whether she can happy be with someone who can’t read. Fair enough, but only because nasty thoughts like this are—alas—not uncommon: The truth of one’s character is in how we recognise and deal with them, and Cath—to me—didn’t address this thoughtfully enough. Instead, Rowell works overtime to convince us that Levi is still cool, smart, and desirable even though he can’t read well, instead of removing his disability from consideration in any assessment of his value as a person. (Do you see what I mean? A person is not a good person even though they are disabled; they are a good person—or not—and disabled.) (I welcome commentary or corrections in terminology from readers more knowledgeable in this area!)
In subtle, sneaky ways like this—sniping girl friendships, casual ableism, and casual rape culture, as when Levi insists on picking Cath up from the library each night, ostensibly to protect her though she doesn’t want him to—some problematic stuff sneaks into Fangirl. While I was genuinely into the plot and respected—and enjoyed—the novel’s loving and accurate portrayal of women in fandom, was intrigued by its portrait of life with a mentally ill parent (that’s something I can’t speak to!), and appreciated the relationship between Cath and her sister as well as the growth of attraction and love between Cath and Levi, I think it’s important to recognise these things as well. I wonder if Rowell has been asked about these things before!
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