The Modern (Fan)girl

By Dr. Belle Tuten

This post reviews the novel Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s, 2013).

You might take one look at the title of this novel, Fangirl, and the author’s name, Rainbow Rowell, and say, “Ugh.”  The title “Fangirl” makes me think of screaming tweens at a One Direction concert, and it doesn’t help me to know that the author’s first name is (really!) Rainbow.  In combination they make me think of pink frilly bedrooms and unicorn posters. Hardly the stuff of deep thought or emotion.

That’s why I am so grateful that I was told to read this book. In an era of truly good Young Adult literature, this book is special; it goes places where normal coming of age books don’t.

Rowell’s “Fangirl” is a young woman named Cather Avery. Cather and her identical twin, Wren, are freshmen at the University of Nebraska. Wren is a party girl who is determined to separate herself from her nervous and introverted twin. Cath is still in shock that Wren has left her, and she is so anxious that she lives the first several weeks of college entirely on protein bars because she can’t bear to go to the cafeteria.

Cath is also a prolific and popular fanfiction writer under the name Magicath. In a nod toward J. K. R. and He Who Is Always Popular, Cath lives deeply inside a world populated by magicians at a magical school, with a Chosen Hero called Simon Snow and his arch-nemesis, a vampire named Baz. As we read bits of both the “original” books and Cath’s fan fiction, which has Simon and Baz fall in love (in opposition to the “original” texts), we learn more about Cath, who is both terrified and fascinated by love and sex. Simon and Baz provide Cath with a way of expressing her longings and her insecurities, and she’s so good at writing about them that she has tens of thousands of regular readers.

Cath’s writing professor spots her talent immediately, but chastises her for plagiarizing someone else’s characters. But Cath can’t express to her professor why she needs to live her emotional life through the story of Simon and Baz. We gradually learn why, as we learn how Cath and Wren developed ways of coping with an absent mother who left when they were eight. We also meet their devoted and loving father, who suffers from episodes of severe mania. To me, the sections in which Cath interacts with her father and deals with his mental illness are the most convincing and poignant scenes in the book. The reader learns to love Cath and the people she loves.

Eventually, of course, Cath goes to the cafeteria, finds a significant other, and begins to grow up – both up, and also away from Simon and Baz. Nothing gets “solved,” per se, at the book’s end, but many things about Cath’s life have moved on.

The book reminded me of the distant past when I was a bookish nerd in my first semester of college who was scared to go to the library by myself.  I think many women of many ages will find in Cath either a reflection of themselves or a companion in their journeys.

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