Rating: 3 out of 5
What's worse? Not liking a book that everybody loves by an author you've never read before, or by an author you already respect? I've experienced both circumstances this past year, and the latter is far more disappointing.
After falling in love with Eleanor & Park, I knew that I had to read more from beloved author Rainbow Rowell. Fangirl seemed like another slam dunk: a coming-of-age story about an introverted writer of fanfiction, something that's right up my alley. But the more I kept reading, the more I realized: great premise, terrible execution.
Let's the discuss the fanfiction first. I'm no stranger to the genre; in fact, I read a ton of fanfics in high school, usually about Harry Potter. Fanfiction.net currently has over 757,000 Harry Potter fanfics—by far the most popular subject—so it's not surprising that Rowell created a Harry Potter lookalike with Simon Snow.
The problem is that Simon Snow comes off as a cheap knockoff and becomes more of a distraction. Even worse, the fanfiction excerpts between chapters do not move the plot forward whatsoever, so I found myself skipping over them. Why read about a subpar copycat when the real wizard wunderkind already exists?
I appreciated that Cath's fanfiction of choice was slash, meaning that her characters were gay even though their original counterparts were not. The "slash" refers to the relationship or "ship" of the story. For example, I enjoy reading Harry Potter slash fanfics that ship Remus/Sirius, Harry/Draco, and Hermione/Ginny.
But let's be honest with ourselves. I bet that the vast majority of fanfics in existence are erotic in nature, so imagine the letdown I felt knowing that Cath was a virginal ball of nerves and the only wand-waving her fanfiction featured was of the literal variety.
I would have much preferred if Fangirl catered more to adults than young adults because I am now way too old to find Cath's anxiety about kissing a boy endearing. Everyone around her is telling her to grow up, and so was I.
This is probably an unpopular opinion, but despite being an underdog, Cath is goddamn annoying. She uses her social anxiety to justify being rude to people and acts high-and-mighty when it comes to premarital sex and even the slightest amount of underage drinking. I can empathize with the struggle to make friends in college and survive small talk, but goodness, Cath should get herself a therapist, pronto.
What also frustrated me about Cath was that this supposed do-gooder cannot complete an original writing assignment if her life depended on it. Or at the very least, her grades, since she flat-out refuses to follow instructions. She thinks that she's such a special snowflake because she can't create her own characters. Cry me a river. I cannot imagine that any actual writers of fanfiction think or act this way.
Rowell is a master at writing honest interactions between characters, and it's the supporting actors that save this story from being a complete flop. Levi is an absolute gem who deserves a better love interest, and Reagan the roommate should have been the star of the show. All the members of Cath's immediate family, from her bipolar dad and estranged mom to her hard-partying twin sister Wren, were more interesting than she was, and toward the end, I was so desperate for this book to have multiple POVs. Anything to get out of the head of a naive girl who'd rather die of malnutrition than ask where the cafeteria is located.
Eleanor & Park was a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of high school sweethearts that felt real, featuring a girl who faced trauma and was forced to mature far past her age. Compared to Eleanor, Cath is a whiny child who sees everything in black and white and avoids her problems instead of overcoming them.
Don't get me wrong: Rainbow Rowell is an excellent author, and my irritation with Fangirl's protagonist is proof that she can unlock an emotional response. Unfortunately, I'm guessing that my response was not the intended one. I think to save myself from future disappointment, I'll stick to Rowell's adult novels from now on.