Book Review: Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

When I read Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, I knew I had something special in my hands. An absolutely outstanding and brilliantly crafted book with amazing characters, deft text, and a wrenching story so intense that I read it in one sitting because I had to know what happened next. This is usually not an issue for me with contemporary YA, which I rarely find that gripping; I definitely enjoy some contemporary YA and think the genre is important, but it’s not my favourite.

After finishing Eleanor and Park, I suspected that Rowell was an author to watch, and that was reinforced when I started hearing the buzz for Fangirl. A book all about fannish communities? Straddling that awkward divide between high school and college as a heroine settles into a new life not just as a young adult, but as an actual adult out of the house in the real world? It could be a horror show, as many attempts to take on fandom are, or it could be glittering and amazing, and after the success of her earlier YA book, I dared to think that Rainbow Rowell could do it again.

As indeed she did. Fangirl is totally stellar, and I must warn you that if you haven’t read it yet (and seriously, why not?!) you should pick up a copy and then plan on being occupied for several hours, because you will find it very difficult to put down. The story of Cath, a BNF in her first year of college trying to balance fandom, new love, classes, and her father’s mental illness, is made all the better by the characters who surround her. Her twin sister, Wren, is struggling with growing up in her own way, while her roommate Reagan is an older student who acts sort of like a mentor, but turns into a friend.

Meanwhile, there’s a sort of book-within-a-book here as we see glimpses of the world of Simon Snow, the character Cath writes and is maybe a bit in love with it. A Harry Potter analogue, he goes to a school of magic, battle evil, and goes through his own coming of age…but in Cath’s world, he’s in a slash relationship with his arch-nemesis Baz, and things get hot and heavy on occasion. Rowell deftly weaves excerpts of the books and the fic into the larger story, creating a tangle of narratives that totally pays an homage to fandom while also creating a deliciously complex and amazing tale.

Here’s the thing: I am not a super active participant in fandom, but I spend a lot of time with fannish people and in fannish spaces. I love fandom and all the great things it can bring out in people, and I take transformative work very seriously both as a legitimate art form and something that needs to be protected. Fandom is beautiful and amazing and varied and fantastic. I have fandom’s back, so to speak.

So it was really important to me that fandom was represented well in a book called Fangirl. I know that some authors are radically opposed to fanfic (for the record, in case it’s not obvious, I am all for nonprofit transformative work of my fiction and I am always tickled when people play with it, expand it, and take it in new directions, because it means something about my characters and my world was compelling enough that people wanted to stay there a little longer…or fix it). It could be pretty easy to write a book about how fandom is evil and slash in particular is gross, but instead, Rowell wrote a touching, honest, accurate, and clear-eyed look at the world of fandom and fans. She gets it, and that’s an accomplishment from an author delving into a world she might not inhabit on a daily basis.

Let’s talk about slash for a minute too, because this is important. Rowell could have taken the easy way out with Cath and had her writing canon fic or conventional relationships, but instead she made the deliberate choice to have Cath be a slash writer. Slash is majorly maligned, in no small part because of fears about queerness and homosexuality, but also because it’s primarily written by women, and it’s primarily M/M. In Fangirl, some of these gross attitudes about slash are soundly confronted and thrown back in the face of the reader: what’s so bad about slash? Why so much judgment? Is this about ‘destroying’ an author’s original work, or about a deeper fear of homosexuality, queering texts, and having fun with characters?

Fandom in general is commonly written off by people who sneer at it without knowing anything about it, acting like it’s not creative or it doesn’t constitute a positive contribution to the world. Aside from the fact that fans themselves are outstanding and do so much good in the world, fanfic and other transformative works are absolutely creative endeavors and they require creative skills. What, after all, is the difference between retelling Cinderella and writing Harry Potter fic?

I was so gripped by this book that I had to tear myself away to work at times. I wanted to know what happened next not just in the story, watching Cath adjust to her life at college (and how similar Cath and I were at that age, in so many ways!), but also in her fic. Did she kill off Baz? Would we get to see a hot sex scene? The suspense killed me right up until the bitter end—well-played, Ms. Rowell, well-played.