Sep 5 2013 8:30am

First Look: Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (September 10, 2013)

Fangirl by Rainbow RowellRainbow Rowell
St. Martin's Press / September 10, 2013 / $18.99 print, $9.99 digital

Cath doesn’t think she’s good at life—but she’s really good at being a fan. She’s been writing fanfiction since she was twelve, and she’s gotten kind of famous in that world. But college is another “story.” She’s got a mean roommate (with a too-friendly boyfriend), her twin sister’s ignoring her, her dad’s a mess, her writing professor is pushing her too hard… She keeps having to rise to the occasion, but all she really wants to do is stay in her room and write. Is Cath ready to live her own life, write her own stories, and open her heart to someone? Or will she just go on living inside her fictional world?

As you’ve probably noticed, around these here parts, we really like our fangirl pursuits. Rainbow Rowell, who got some great buzz for her very touching YA Eleanor & Park, does a lovely job portraying the weird phenomenon of being “internet famous” in this coming-of-age story.

For the most part, she gets the fandom details pretty right. Cath is a BNF (big name fan) for writing a long-running story “Carry On, Simon!” about a (fictional) couple/book series that was obviously inspired by Harry and Draco from Rowling’s Potter novels. Cath’s stories are so beloved she gets hundreds of emails from readers clamoring for more, and even has fan art t-shirts based on her stories selling on Etsy.

This, it should be noted, is despite the very quiet, PG-rated fic she writes—which we get excerpts from at the start of each chapter. It was a little hard to buy that Cath would be THAT level of famous for a story where the leads only ever progress to a super chaste kiss after dozens of chapters. While well-written, heartwarming romance fic does have its admirers in fandom, let’s be real: it’s the massive trainwrecks full of porn (like a certain monochromatic series) that get the kind of fervent love that Cath’s stories supposedly inspire.

Even one of Cath’s fans (unaware that she’s speaking with the author she adores) mentions it:

“It killed me how long it took Simon and Baz to get together. And now I’m dying for them to have a big love scene. That’s my only complaint about Carry On—not enough Simon/Baz action.”

“She almost never writes love scenes,” Cath said, feeling her cheeks pink.

“Yeah but when she does, they’re hot.”

“You think?”

“Um,” the girl laughed. “Yes.”

“This is why people think we’re crazy perverts,” Cath said.

The girl just giggled some more…

“I know that Magicath wouldn’t exist without GTL. But now, I think I love Magicath more. Like she might be my favorite author. And she’s never even written a book…”

Cath’s jaw was hanging slightly open, and she was shaking her head.”

“That’s crazy.”

“I know,” the girl said, “but I think it’s true…”

But Cath’s fic is very chaste because she is too. She’s a quiet “good” girl with many social anxieties, who is really struggling to find her place at college, and easily prefers living in her head to the real world. The previously close relationship between Cath and her suddenly somewhat wilder twin Wren has deteriorated (for a good reason that you learn late in the novel), leaving Cath adrift and alone. So she takes comfort in the one place she can be special and stand out: fandom.

The story walks a fine line, as it could’ve been very preachy, sending the message that fanfiction is only for immature teens who don’t want to grow up. And the novel does culminate with Cath investing less in fanfic and more in flesh-and-blood relationships with the people around her. She even eventually picks up her pen for “original” work. But Rowell manages to portray Cath’s evolution as finding better balance rather than simply trading something childish for something more worthy. She doesn’t leave it behind entirely but makes room in her life for other things, better relationships with her family and friends, and a romance with a real live boy…

The story takes its time to set up the romance (even introducing what looks to be a love triangle at first), but the relationship between Cath and Levi (the boy she initially thinks is her sarcastic goth roommate Reagan’s boyfriend—he’s not; it’s complicated) blossoms sweetly, if slowly. Levi is definitely hero material: patient, kind, supportive, protective. He’s also dyslexic, which leads to Cath reading to him as their friendship develops and one particularly swoon-inducing scene involving an all-night reading session of The Outsiders that will win the heart of every booklover:

Cath closed the book and let it fall on Levi’s chest, not sure what happened next. Not sure she was awake, all things considered.

The moment it fell he pulled her into him. Onto him. With both arms. Her chest pressed against his, and the paperback slid between their stomachs.

Cath’s eyes were half closed, and so were Levi’s and his lips only looked small from afar, she realized, because of their doll-like pucker. They were perfectly big, really, now that she had a good look at them. Perfectly something.

He nudged his nose against hers, and their mouths fell sleepily together, already soft and open.

When Cath’s eyes closed, her eyelids stuck. She wanted to open them. She wanted to get a better look at Levi’s too-dark eyebrows, she wanted to admire his crazy, vampire hairline—she had a feeling this was never going to happen again and that it might even ruin what was left of her life, so she wanted to open her eyes and bear some witness.

But she was so tired.

And his mouth was so soft.

And nobody had ever kissed Cath like this before. Only Abel had kissed her before, and that was like getting pushed squarely on the mouth and pushing back.

Levi’s kisses were all taking. Like he was drawing something out of her with soft little jabs of his chin. She brought her fingers up to his hair, and she couldn’t open her eyes.

Eventually, she couldn’t stay awake.

Sleepy-sexy swoon, am I right?

Wren and Reagan are also nicely drawn and the relationships Cath has with them, as well as her dad back at home, are all really touching. Overall, Fangirl is a lovely, intimate story of finding your place in the world, finding the things and the people that bring you joy, and finding the kind of wonder that makes you stay up all night reading a good story.

Learn more or pre-order a copy of Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell before its release (September 10, 2013):

Buy at AmazonBuy at Barnes & NobleBuy at Indiebound



Tara Gelsomino is a reader, writer, pop culture junkie, and internet addict. You can tweet her at @taragel.

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Heather Waters
1. HeatherWaters
Excellent review, Tara!

I've been in and out of various fandoms since I was a teenager--Roswell, Veronica Mars, Prison Break, Battlestar Galactica 2003, Avengers...the list could go on--but you rarely see fandom, and especially 'shippers, represented in fiction like this. Rainbow Rowell herself clearly has been a part of the culture, and enjoys it rather than looks down on it, and that really shines through. I loved Fangirl and have a feeling that lots of fellow fangirls will agree.
2. Kareni
I read this yesterday and enjoyed it very much. Thanks for the review.
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