Thursday, August 20, 2015

Book Review: Fangirl

Cover of Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell
We all have that one thing that we cannot get enough of: the show we watch over and over, the book we read time and again, the film we saw ten times in the cinema.  Cath, the protagonist of Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013), takes this fanatic obsession to the extreme: filling her mind, her free time, and her dorm room with the characters from her favorite novels, the Simon Snow series.  Cath reminds us fans of the fledgling nerds we all once were, trying to find our place in a social structure that does not always privilege our cultural properties with the same enthusiasm that we do.

The story focuses on Cath’s transition from high school to college, depicting her adjusting to dorm life, boy-girl interactions, and a world of individuals who see themselves as having “outgrown” her most beloved character: Simon Snow.  For Cath, Simon is not something you can age out of; his stories are as real, if not more so, than the university life happening around her every day.  To indulge her love of the character, she regularly writes slash[1] fanfiction about him.  Like many of us geeks, Cath struggles with balancing her real world interactions with her overwhelming passion for Simon.  The novel gives us a snapshot of her freshman year, being as much about that experience as it is about the experience of being a fangirl.

Simon & Baz, from the Simon Snow series, the fictional works with which Cath is obsessed
What sets Fangirl apart from a sea of young adult novels about quirky young millennials is its honest representation of what it means to come of age in the twenty-first century.  Cath is, in my opinion, at times over-indulgent of her fandom, letting her anxiety and lack of desire to socialize overcome the need of all young people to interact with their contemporaries.  Yet I also found this aspect of her character one of the most relatable.  I saw a lot of myself in Cath, as I also struggled with interacting with my classmates when all I wanted to do was dive deeper into my favorite fictional worlds.  Rowell gives Cath a clever foil: her twin sister, Wren, who, rather than maintaining her sense of self via fandom, practically alters her whole identity to fit in as one of the Girls, with no mention of the word “fan-”- attached before it.  By including Wren, Rowell gives a complete and thorough picture of the choices facing young woman as they begin college.  Both Cath and Wren have flaws; they seem like real girls making real life choices and learning to make sense of the consequences.

Cath's Kick-Ass Tee, based on her Fanfic
I will admit: as an adult reader whose awkward teen years are far behind her I expected not to enjoy this book all that much.  I feared it would fall into that bizarre genre of novels about these somewhat odd, but ultimately sexually desirable, young women whose whole purpose in life seems to be to save the men with whom they interact.  But Rowell is so clever in her storytelling that she regularly has Cath insult and berate that characterization trope.  In its place, Rowell has created an honest tale of what it means to stay a fangirl—something I still pride myself on being even after completing a PhD—while also becoming a young woman. 

Fangirl will leave its reader thinking about its characters long after she has finished reading it.  I think my younger geek readers out there will find even more in this novel: a reminder that it is hard to grow up, but one thing is for sure: our fandoms will always be there for us. 

If you have read, are reading, or do read this book, let me know your thoughts in the comments.  Get out there, geeky girls, and read some books!  Until then, Dr. Kelly is wishing you a Glorious Geek Day!

Article by Kelly I. Aliano, PhD

[1] According to Wikipedia, “Slash fiction is a genre of fanfiction that focuses on interpersonal attraction and sexual relationships between fictional characters of the same.”

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