Issue #272 – Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I didn’t expect to do another romance so soon, but in my defence, I didn’t think this was going to be a romance. Well, not exactly.

What first interested me in Fangirl was the title. I read that it was about a college student who wrote fan fiction in high school for her favorite YA series (think Harry Potter meets Twilight) and is now struggling to grow as a writer.

This was relatable to me. I had hoped that this would be an exploration of writing, fandom, geek culture, the nature of fanfic, as well as what separates fan fiction from more mature writing pursuits. And that is in there. But it’s a coming of age romance as well.

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!

All kidding aside, this story has a lot more going for it than I’m letting on. Aside from the usual coming-of-age issues in college, this story has a focus on some serious mental issues. The father suffers from manic depression, the protagonist (Cath) has crippling social anxiety, while her twin sister (Wren) is on her way to becoming an alcoholic. Both Cath and Wren have not only been helping their father cope while growing up, but dealing with abandonment issues because their mother left them when they were very young.

On top of that, you have sibling dynamics. Cath and Wren might be identical physically, but they have very different personalities. Wren tries far too hard to be extroverted (partying and drinking to excess) while Cath is so introverted and full of self-doubt she might as well be invisible. The only time she feels free is when she’s writing.

Naturally, she ends up with a roommate who helps her come out of her shell, but instead of the typical manic pixie fairy type you’d expect filling this roll, she’s stuck with a surly sophomore who only helps Cath because she seems so damn pathetic. And her roommate’s boyfriend is so friendly and personable to everyone he meets that it only confuses the reclusive Cath further.

For the first half of the book, while fanfic writing and fandom is mentioned and discussed, it seemed to be rather cursory. A setting rather than a subject. Like it was more of an excuse to explore an introvert who prefers losing herself in a fictional world rather than dealing with the real world.

In the second half, we see more of this fictional world she lives in as Cath reads her fanfic to her possible boyfriend. There is an interesting reason why this happens, touching upon yet another serious issue: learning disabilities, and how some people find ways to cope with them.

At its core, this is a coming-of-age story and romance, though I will admit it’s far more real than other stories in this vein I’ve come across (despite its comedic presentation). It has complexity. There are no easy solutions, no magic switches to flip to make everything better. It’s all about coping with the hand you’re dealt. The romance can be incredibly awkward, but then young love is awkward. Too many movies portray such things in an idealized way, when in truth these encounters tend to be clumsy and embarrassing and even cringy in retrospect (it certainly reminded me of some of my less than Casanova-like exploits), while still being sweet.

In the second half we deal more with writing and what it means to be a writer. Cath is prolific, but only when it comes to other people’s worlds. Whenever she tries to write outside of that, it feels superficial and fake. So she doesn’t try. She sticks with what she knows, with what works. She even hands in her fanfic for a creative writing workshop, which doesn’t go over well with her professor, who tries her best to explain why she needs to break out of her comfort zone.

Cath, however, likes her comfort zone. She doesn’t want to create new worlds, but to keep living in the world she already loves. I can relate to this, as I’ve written my own share of fanfic over the years. It’s a seductive trap to fall into. And for some maybe that’s all they’ll ever need to make themselves happy. No harm or shame in that. But for those who want to be more, it can also hold you back. But that’s the problem with Cath. She doesn’t want to be more. At least, not at first.

What I like most about this book is the way mental illness is handled. It doesn’t beat you over the head defining anything, uses a “show don’t tell” approach to revealing what the siblings have had to live with all their lives with their father, and how they’ve both adapted different coping mechanisms for those stresses (and the stress of their mother leaving and later trying to reconnect).

Last month I talked about books that strive, and the fact that most authors look for some way to do something more with what they’re doing, even when working in a predictable framework. I reviewed A Connecticut Fashionista in King Arthur’s Court, which was a pretty standard romance that managed to weave in some Arthurian fun without taking itself too seriously.

Fangirl, on the other hand, while also being light and containing classic romance and coming-of-age tropes, shows how such a book can truly strive to be more than the sum of its parts.

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