Wednesday, June 22, 2016

What I Read: Fangirl

Everyone I trust has been gushing about Rainbow Rowell, so when I saw an English copy of Fangirl available at Stadsbiblioteket's library sale, I thought, "Why not?" It was only 5 SEK (essentially 75 cents US) so if I didn't like it, no big deal. It would probably even make a great gift for a friend, or a giveaway item, since it was the super-fancy special edition with the Carry On preview, an interview with Rowell, and some (admittedly cute and charming) fanart.

Image courtesy Macmillan

I plunked down my 5 crowns and immediately dug in. I was at the library to return Possession, which is a very dense, very smart, very "heavy-lifting" kind of book, so I was in need of some lighter fare. YA? Fanfiction? You don't get much lighter fare than that!

If you follow me on Twitter then you already have a pretty good idea of what I thought of it. In summary:

1. I get the "Cath" and "Wren" / "Catherine" conceit but I well and truly hate it. I'm a Katherine with serious feelings about nicknames and "Kath"/"Cath" is probably right at the top of my list of most-hated. Is this completely arbitrary and on me? Yes. (Well, the artistic merit of the Cath/Wren joke is debatable, but my hatred for "Cath" specifically is 100% irrational and I recognize that.)

2. There were a few good moments of social anxiety but they were largely outnumbered by Cath being immature and irritating. I'm split on how the situation with her mother was handled—true, sometimes a parent is actually a bad parent, but the way Cath threw a fit every time the topic of maybe getting back in touch with her mother came up was not endearing, either. Realistic? Probably. And certainly a good character is a flawed character who is sometimes obnoxious and unlikable. I guess there was nothing for me to like about Cath; her tantrums about her mother weren't balanced out by her fanfiction prowess (for me) since I don't give a flying fuck about fanfiction. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I'm an anxious person and could relate to Cath's thought processes on that front, but actually like her? Meh.

3. I also feel like Rowell herself wasn't fair to their mother—we get all of this insight into Cath's social anxiety and we're supposed to sympathize with how she manages it, e.g. not going to a particular dining hall until her roommate (Reagan?) makes her. But then when Laura doesn't want to visit Wren in the hospital, it feels very much like we're supposed to take it as a True Definitive Sign that she is, in fact, a Shitty Mom. As if it would be totally out of character for an anxious person to 1) not be able to handle twins and a bipolar husband and 2) to not want to intrude on her daughter, a girl who is essentially still a stranger to her, in a very upsetting and stressful moment of crisis. No, Laura's just a selfish bitch! Save your sympathy for Cath!!

4. The fake Simon Snow extracts (and all the related faux Wikipedia/ entries, as well as Cath's writing) contributed nothing at all to the story and I soon skipped over all of them because yawn. This is an interesting one to compare with Possession, a novel that is also very much about people reading and writing about fictional literature. Confession: I skipped over a lot of Byatt's poems as well. But I feel like Byatt's poetry was more essential to the rest of the story, or at least more interesting.

5. Can we talk about that scene where Cath meets a fan of hers in the library? (Or dining hall? Somewhere?) What is this completely needless Mary Sue moment....

6. Chalk this up to different universities, but my college only paired freshmen with other freshmen when it came to roommates. I spent a really long portion of the book confused about Reagan and Levi until Rowell made it clear that no, they're older and Reagan has to live on campus for Reasons and so on.

7. The subplot with Nick I don't understand at all. If it was supposed to serve as a mirror/foil/critique for Cath's fanfiction then I....didn't get it? Since Rowell seems to otherwise be portraying fanfiction positively? Or is it supposed to be "here's actual plagiarism, which is bad, and notice how it's not fanfiction!!!!!"?

8. Wren's arc blew. At the end of the day, the book seemed to lump characters into either "Simon Snow fans, whether enthusiastic or begrudging" or "non-fans," with non-fans providing the majority of the conflict. That kind of schema sets up a very specific moral map: "It's us geeks versus the world!" So while Wren is being antagonistic, she's too cool for Simon Snow. But as soon as she comes out of the hospital she does a total 180 and is back to being a fangirl. It makes reconciliation between her and Cath really easy and really boring.

Why couldn't Wren stay grown out of Simon Snow? A much more interesting conflict would have been what happens when someone you were close with once drifts away, or loses interest in the things you used to share together? That is a huge and painful part of growing up, but it feels like Rowell took the easy way out and just made Wren a geek again, the end!

9. The special attention lavished on Cath by her writing professor was a bit...much. Flirting with Mary Sue-ishness.

10. Also the banter with Reagan and Cath in the dining hall...ugh. I guess some people might actually have try-hard not-actually-funny conversations like that, especially in college, but instead of coming off as "ahh, remember those awkward try-hard years?" it felt like "LOOK HOW WITTY MY HEROINE IS!"

That said, there were a couple of bright spots.

1. I appreciate that Cath's writing arc did not involve converting her professor to the joys of fanfction. It would be a bit unrealistic to expect that to be the resolution, but as I read on it really felt like the book would really take that turn: Cath is a super speshul snoflaek and the world must learn to recognize and acknowledge that~~~ So thanks for resisting that temptation, Rowell.

2. Despite my numerous issues with the story, the writing itself was breezy and enjoyable. Rowell has a good ear for language, and while I doubt I'll ever try another one of her YA books, I might look into one of her offerings for older readers to see if things get any better.

Am I alone in really disliking the name "Cath"?


  1. I like Rowell overall, but she is not perfect. I also have done a lot of her books on audio, so that might have helped? But, I hate Kel (short for Kelly), so I can get the Cath thing. :)

    1. I don't know if an audiobook would help or not! I enjoy having my boyfriend read to me, but it's also very easy for my mind to wander. I think with audiobooks I would constantly be hitting rewind.

  2. I liked parts of this book, but all the fanfic stuff was just lost on me. I've never cared for fanfic (I'm not against it, but I'm a jerk and just don't see the point I guess??) so I just didn't sympathize with how passionate Cath was about the characters.

    The Wren drama was weird. Although I do understand how someone no longer liking a shared hobby can be kind of a bummer. Like, I met one of my BFF'S at an anime/manga convention, so it was obviously something we talked about a LOT, but now she doesn't watch/read anime/manga anymore. For a bit that was sort of a bummer because I didn't have anyone to talk to about new episodes and shit like that. BUT I GOT OVER IT. Because we met when I was 15 and peoples interests change as they get older. So the fact that Cath couldn't accept that was annoying. I wish her and Wren had made up without Wren going back to being a Simon Snow fan.

    The social anxiety part stuff I had mixed feelings on. Like, I get it too, but still. I can't remember exactly how it went, but I remember when Cath first gets to college she lives off granola bars for a week, because she can't find the cafeteria and is too scared to ask for directions? Ummmm no thanks (maybe this is why I'm fat, hah).

    1. I wish her and Wren had made up without Wren going back to being a Simon Snow fan.

      That was HUGE missed opportunity for actual character development and an interesting story worth telling. Instead, Cath just...makes peace with the fact that her fanfic doesn't have be published before the last Simon Snow book. Sorry, but that's just not cutting it.

      Also the way Wren's drinking is treated bugs me. Ending up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning is definitely not fun, and everyone is right to be concerned. But it's like, I don't know, no one trusts Wren not to learn from that experience on her own? No one asks her if there's something else that's bugging her? Now she has to go home every weekend? Never mind how Wren's drinking was symptomatic of her being ~~~too cool for Cath, but as soon as she realized HOW! EBIL! drinking was, she was back on Team Geek. I mean, college is a weird situation where a lot of people have a lot of problematic drinking habits that would be considered alcoholic in a non-college setting...but then the vast majority of students turn out fine and have much more responsible drinking habits once they graduate. So.

      lol I just enjoy a good cocktail and a good Scotch now and then, and people getting even sideways moralistic about drinking makes me roll my eyes. Maybe Rowell had a bad Wren-like experience herself? Whatever.

  3. I have not picked up a Rainbow Rowell novel and I confess, one of the reasons is the hype. Everyone loves this book, but when I read the synopsis and got to know more about it, I wasn't completely confident I'd take to it (I really don't get the whole fanfiction storline). Your review is actually really refreshing and if I decide to read this and don't like it, you know I'll be heading over to Goodreads.