I took a gamble on this one. As I've mentioned in previous posts, I am a bit of a prude when it comes to what I read, and there are LOTS of YA books out there that are chock-full of content that I find go against my reading standards. I typically only read YA that trusted friends have recommended to me. But something pulled me to this book, and I was excited to try out a new author. Plus, a friend bought this for me for my birthday. That alone makes this book special!
"Fangirl" is about Cath, a college freshman in Nebraska. She and her twin, Wren, leave home to attend school, but for the first time in their 18 years, they won't be living together. Cath is definitely the more conservative twin, very shy and practical. It even takes her a few weeks living in the dorms before she ventures a conversation with her roommate, Reagan. Cath's sister, Wren, on the other hand, is a little edgier and can't wait to meet new people and opportunities to party at the frat houses.
Cath writes fanfiction. In "Fangirl," there's a book series about a magical boy named Simon Snow, which is more or less a Harry Potter version of fiction created for this story. Each chapter in "Fangirl" begins with an excerpt from a "real" Simon Snow book or a bit of fanfic Cath has posted on a popular fanfic site. She has thousands of readers who follow the adventures Cath writes for the characters Simon, Baz, and Penelope. So, first off the bat, props to Rowell, who really had to write three stories instead of one when she created "Fangirl." That's pretty creative and shows a fortitude of talent. Also, each of the these excerpts is a prelude of sorts, foreshadowing what'll happen in that chapter. Something that happened with the "real" or fanfic Simon Snow characters correlates with something that happens in Cath's life. I loved it.
I also loved Cath herself. She likes to read and write. I relate to that. She's typically shy and nervous about meeting new people. I relate to that. I love that while she encounters several college lifestyle opportunities (drinking, sex, drugs, partying) she steers clear of things that she interprets as bad choices. She doesn't have any real moral grounds for doing so (what her parents did/did not teach her, religious affiliations, etc.) She just recognizes self-destructive or damaging behaviors and avoids it. I greatly appreciated that about our heroine.
The other thing I loved about "Fangirl" was the subtle lessons on writing that are strewn through the book. Because Cath has so much writing experience, she get special permission to take upperclassmen courses on writing. She really excels in the course until one assignment set her in a tailspin. She used the Simon Snow characters and wrote the assignment like a piece of fanfic, and the professor was highly disappointed that she didn't use original characters. Cath only has experience writing using the Simon Snow characters and she says she cannot come up with her own unique story to write.
I resonated with this so deeply. I've been trying my hand at my own writing in recent years, mostly in the realm of historical fiction, using people and events that already exist. I felt much like Cath...my brain feels like a barren desert when I try to conjure up my own characters and their exploits. She has several conversations with her creative writing professor where these little bits of gems about writing are sprinkled through the book. And I felt like they were written for me. I genuinely found them motivational and inspiring. For example:
"But I don't want to write my own fiction," Cath said, as emphatically as she could. " I don't want to write my own characters or my own words--I don't care about them." She clenched her fists in her lap. "I care about Simon Snow. And I know he's not mine, but that doesn't matter to me. I'd rather pour myself into a world I love and understand than try to make something up out of nothing."
The professor leaned forward, "But there's nothing more profound that creating something out of nothing." Her lovely face turned fierce. "Think about it, Cath. That's what makes a god--or a mother. There's nothing more intoxicating than creating something from nothing. Creating something from yourself."
"It just feels like nothing to me," Cath said.
"You'd rather take--or borrow--someone else's creation?"
"I know Simon and Baz. I know how they think, what they feel. When I'm writing them, I get lost in them completely, and I'm happy. When I'm writing my own stuff, it's like swimming upstream. Or...falling down a cliff and grabbing at branches, trying to invent the branches as I fall."
"Yes," the professor said, reaching out and grasping the air in front of Cath, like she was catching a fly. "That's how it's supposed to feel" (261-62).
Have you have had a book speak to you? Cath's lessons on finding her own voice spoke to me. They're precious to me. I'm reading "Fangirl" again to mark these tidbits and passages that I may not have been looking for the first time I went through it. The professor's advice to Cath have sparked courage in my own personal writings that I've not dared venture to explore yet. And I'm grateful for the nudge.
Besides all that, I really liked Rowell's tone and how she tells the story. It's developed thoroughly and she's a fantastic story-teller. I loved the characters and their predicaments. There's a love story in there, as well as some tense family drama that made me tear up.
Because I have friends who read this blog, friends who are just a prude-ish as I am, I must include the following. On my scale-of-prudeness (SOP, hah!), the worst offense this book was the language. I quickly found a black Sharpie and scribbled out the offending words (should've used white-out tape, but I was too busy reading and loving this story to run and buy one--my kids ruined the old one). And yes, this was my own copy so inking it up was totally legit. Lots of f-bombs and other language my fellow prudes wouldn't appreciate. If you want to borrow my 'edited' copy, you're more than welcome to.
Also on my SOP were all the college life stuff Cath encounters, even though she doesn't usually participate. So there's dialogue about sex and drinking and partying, and I couldn't very well ink out entire sections. But I can overlook most of that stuff because it's not the essence of the book; it's just what's happening in Cath's peripheral.
So, this is a tongue-in-cheek recommendation. For my friends who are less prudish than I am, you'll love it. For my prudish friends, you'll not appreciate the language and such worldly tidbits.