Rainbow Rowell frustrates me. I wanted badly to like her last book, Eleanor & Park
. I'd heard nothing but good things, mainly about it being an unconventional romance, a heartbreaking ending, etc.
Unfortunately, for reasons I won't expand upon in this review, E&P didn't work out for me. However, I liked the glimmers of talent in Rowell's writing enough to go and pick up her latest book, Fangirl
. Everyone on Goodreads and Tumblr have been communally freaking out over this book, and the adorable cover art looks like a bit of Noelle Stevenson
's work, so I thought this would be a fun, light read.
If you don't know, Fangirl
is about this girl, Cath, who's a wildly popular fanfiction writer for Rowell's version of Harry Potter, which she calls Simon Snow. She goes to university and has to generally grow up. People are identifying with it and lauding this thing left and right.
I'm afraid I've once again missed out on the hype.
It's consistently frustrating to pick up a book that's supposed to be crazy, wildly popular, and just not enjoy it. It happens to me constantly. It happened with The Hunger Games
, with Divergent
, with Shadow and Bone
, even with Harry Potter
. And now Fangirl
Maybe I'm simply a fickle book reader. Maybe I'm just an elitist who can't enjoy a decent story without picking it apart.
Whatever's wrong with me, here are my beefs with this book. Plot
I understand that this is a work of literary fiction and that it's fundamentally character-driven. I also understand how tough it is to write a character-driven novel and maintain focus and cohesion; I'm experiencing that right now on one of my WIPs.
just felt huge and uncertain. There were glimpses of this uncontrolled enormity in E&P, but it's crazy amplified here. A whole lot of stuff happened, but very little of it felt significant. There are several plot threads introduced in this book, and not all of them tied up so neatly. I was pingponged back and forth between Cath's struggles dealing with the terror that is starting university, to Cath's relationship with her writing partner Nick, to Cath's floundering bond with her sister, to Cath's father's wandering mind, to Cath's broken home life, to Cath's growing obsession with Levi, to her utterly boring
fanfiction (more on that in a bit). All of that compounded and compounded and made the novel feel increasingly unsure of itself.
I couldn't tell if Fangirl
was supposed to be about Cath coming to terms with herself as a writer, a lover, a sister, a daughter, a scholar, a grownup, or what. I'm not saying that she can't have been doing all those things. Rowell just didn't weave all those elements together succinctly enough that it felt like a natural character transition, like all the upheavals in her life were somehow related and dependent on one another. Instead, it felt like she was just ticking off a checklist of all the Big Character Transitions she wanted to put Cath through. It was jerky, awkward, and boated.
The closest Rowell came to a cohesive organization was by splitting the book into two halves, between fall and spring semesters. While I like the idea of it, I think that more internal structure to the story itself would have helped keep the plot from dragging, because that middle twenty percent was hard to slog through.
But, hey. It's character-driven. Maybe the characters made up for it. Characterization
...said the optimistic reader, who is unfortunately very incorrect.
The main character of this book, Cath, is one of the most singularly unlikable people I have ever come across. While there's nothing wrong with a book character being unlikable, I found Cath to be a rude, immature, selfish, narrow-minded person. She's irritating as hell.
From the first time she arrives in her dorm, Cath actively turns down invitations to go outside and do anything, then gets all down on herself when her whole floor goes without her. What's more, she actively avoids making friends, only sometimes stopping short of rudeness.
I understand introversion and social anxiety well enough --more than I'd like to, honestly--through personal experience, but it's not like Cath is just reluctant. She's not simply crippled with fear at the thought of trying something new: she's critical of everyone
. She and her roommate make a sport of mocking and judging everyone who walks into the dining hall, which makes me wonder what their respective problems are. Even worse, when her buddy Levi tells her he's not really a book person, she replies with "'That might be the most idiotic thing you've ever said to me.'"
As a book reader, I scoffed. I honestly got a bit pissed off at an imaginary person for being such an uppity, conceited brat. That's Cath effectively saying that if you don't like the things she likes, you're obviously just stupid. But wait, it gets better. She maintains that bitchy attitude even after
Levi tells her that he has a learning disorder that keeps him from being able to read more than a paragraph or so without losing focus. He loves books, as long as they're read to him. And Cath still considers them to be two different species, still internally criticizes him for not loving reading.
That really bothered me. And that same pompous inferiority complex saturates the rest of the narrative, even when one hits the conclusion, when Cath is supposedly grown up.
Finally, my biggest problem with Cath is her frankly unhealthy obsession with Simon Snow. I get that this is the basis of her entire character, that she's this famous slash-writing internet author who gets thousands of hits a week or whatever. But goddamn, she is so singularly focused. Her bedroom is papered in Simon Snow posters. Most of her clothes are Simon Snow related. She even turns in a university creative writing assignment about Simon
characters and gets all bewildered when her professor isn't cool with that plagiarism.
It's immature, and it's boring. Have some varied interests, Cath. For God's sake.
(Spoiler alert: She doesn't get any. Unless you count her boyfriend.)
All of that would be much better if at any point in this book she gets over herself. However, these flaws just become more internalized and subtle as Cath grows throughout this book. She's still being a jerk to everyone she meets, but she's less obvious about it. It's sort of the opposite of character development.
However, I do want to note that Rowell has some intriguing side characters in this book. They're what really kept me reading. I liked Cath's twin sister Wren for the vast majority of the book, until she turned into a giant freshman stereotype. Her father was interesting and weird and deeply empathetic, as was his relationship with her mother. There were a few other characters, like Levi and Cath's roommate Reagan, who were cool, too. Honestly, I would have been happy if literally anyone else narrated this book instead of Cath. Writing
The writing itself had its high points. There were some awesome descriptions, like when Levi was described as "the smilingest person" Cath had ever seen. I also teared up when Cath recounted her memories with her mother, though I'll remain purposefully vague enough to avoid spoilers. I remember snippets of scenes where I was really caught in the moment, and while those were short lived, I did genuinely enjoy them. They were only about twenty percent of the book, unfortunately.
One thing that did really bother me was how scripted the dialogue felt. I frequently caught myself rolling my eyes, because no one in real life talks the way that Rowell's characters do. It was tough to stay focused and in the story when I kept getting bothered by how every character seems to have a witty comeback for every possible situation. Dialogue like this
"You're so blindingly cute right now, I feel like I need to make a pinhole in a piece of paper just to look at you."
while fun, is everywhere in this book, and it's just not realistic. Nobody talks like that. It all sounds so fake and planned and written
. There's no fluidity to it. It's like Rainbow Rowell had Levi say this thing, rather than it reading like something Levi would actually say. And there's a huge difference between those two things.
I think that my biggest problem with this book was that I just couldn't relate to it, particularly on its overarching theme: Fanfiction
Perhaps I live an unfulfilled life, but, uh, I don't like Harry Potter. I don't dislike it, either, but I got bored with the first book around the Quidditch stuff in elementary school and never went back. I'm told it gets better, but I am uninterested in reading a few hundred thousand words waiting for that to happen.
As such, I've missed this huge pop culture thing that's so stupidly popular with my generation. All the gifs, the slash fanfiction, all the midnight premieres and thematic birthday parties and Lego sets and lifelong devotion to this one thing
I never got that.
And I honestly still don't get it.
So, if you don't care for fanfiction or fandoms at any level, but HP in particular, you're going to have a really hard time relating to this book. The vast majority of Cath's character lies in her identity as a fanfiction writer, which Rowell spends a long time trying to justify as "real writing." Cath's fiction writing teacher, Professor Piper, represents the traditional writing monolith of people like me who think that, at a certain point, you do need to learn how to make up your own stuff. Fanfiction is excellent writing practice, but inventing your own characters and world to shape and change is even better. It's all a part of maturing in your craft.
If you don't want to do that, whatever. Another topic for another post.
A large portion of this text ended up being devoted to Cath's magnum opus, a slash fanfiction about Simon and Baz (i.e. Harry and Draco, I wager). She reads excerpts of it aloud to Levi. Long, tedious, poorly written excerpts. If you're going to make such a big deal about what a good writer she is, it would be wise to have her excerpts be slightly more than witty, flirty dialogue between the boys and discussing their hair/eye color over and over again.
Honestly, I began to skip all the excerpts around 33% into the book, according to my Kindle. Which wasn't the best, because the ending was an excerpt
from something about Simon Snow.
In short, you'll probably like this book if you like contemporary romances and have ever been truly tumblr-mad about a book series. If neither of those things generally appeal to you, I'd advise you to approach with caution. You probably won't enjoy this book too much.