Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, 434 pp, RL TEEN
Scroll to the bottom for exciting news about fangirl!!
As I did with my review of Rowell's last book, Eleanor & Park, before I start my review, I need to compliment the artist who created the cover art, this time the enchanting Noelle Stevenson, who is famous in the fan fiction community for her artwork. Kudos, once again, also go to Olga Grlic for the superb jacket design and for the brilliant idea of finding someone with Noelle's background and presence to provide the art. Yet again, the jacket for Rowell's book draws you in visually and, once you have read the book (really, before you even finish it) you realize how perfectly, creatively matched the cover art is with the literary content. It seems effortless when perfect cover art happens, but so deeply disappointing when a really great book has a cover that doesn't live up to what is inside. Or worse, when a really great cover attracts you to a book that doesn't live up to the promise of the dust jacket.
When I reviewed Rainbow Rowell's stunning novel Eleanor & Park, there were so many things I wanted to talk about in relation to the book, in addition to the fact that it is one of the most masterful examples of writing I have read - the kind that takes you back to that age when a book made you want to sleep with it, eat with it and, if you could, live in it, then read it all over again (which is, in fact what the protagonist of Fangirl experiences, creating something tangible out of her love for a book). Rowell's writing makes you want to stop your life and "read like a girl" in exactly the way Michelle Slatalla describes it in her piece, I Wish I Could Read Like a Girl, in which she details the behavior of her teenaged daughters on holiday break:
they read like I did when I was a girl. They drape themselves across chairs and sofas and beds — any available horizontal surface will do, in a pinch — and they allow a novel to carry them so effortlessly from one place to another that for a time they truly don’t care about anything else.
That is exactly how I felt as I read Eleanor & Park and again when I read Rowell's newest novel, Fangirl. And, once again, I feel like I have so many things I want to talk about in relation to this novel that I hope I can touch on them all and write a concise review (this is also my way of apologizing for the length of this reviews...) Time stops when I read Rowell's books and I really am somewhere else. This has been the experience for my daughter, now a few months out of teenagerdom, when she reads Rowell's books, too. I note this because sometimes I do feel weird that, as a middle-aged woman, I connect with Rowell's characters and stories on such a deep emotional level. It's good to know that her intended audience is connecting in this way as well. Rowell's characters are teenage kids who, besides other significant things going on in their lives, are experiencing love for the first time. Why am I so mesmerized by their stories? Admittedly, Rowell weaves things into her novels that resonate with me. Eleanor & Park is set in 1986 when I was in high school and the characters' musical tastes match mine at that time. Fangirl features a Harry-Potter type series of books that generate a similar type of devotion in readers that I (and my daughter) felt as we read Rowling's books over the years as they were published. Working at a bookstore made the midnight release parties even more fun. But, as I read Fangirl, trying to slow myself again and again so I could make the book (and my time living in it) last longer (just like I did with Eleanor & Park) I realized what Rowell does that makes her novels so compelling, engrossing and breathtaking: she creates characters who are so detailed in every way that they feel real, like people you know. Rowell gets into their heads and translates them onto the page in a way that allows her readers to get into her character's heads, which is especially interesting because a large part of Fangirl is about readers who feel like they know the characters in a book better than the author herself, so well that they write new lives for these characters.
In Fangirl, eighteen-year-old, Omaha native Cather is the protagonist. Cath (as she prefers to be called) and her identical twin sister, Wren, (there is a fantastic story about how the sisters got their names) have grown up with the Simon Snow series of books about a Harry Potter like boy who, at the age of 11, learns that he is a powerful magician and the possible savior of the world of the Mages. The eighth and final book in the series is set to be published on May 1, 2012, which coincides with what is almost the end of the Fangirl. The sisters are deeply involved in the world that has grown up around these books, from posters to t-shirts to sheets to standees and statues. Cath and Wren, under the pseudonyms "Magicath" and "Wrenegade," have contributed thousands and thousands of words of fan fiction about the characters from the Simon Snow books to FanFixx.net, a website dedicated to Simon Snow fan fiction. In fact, Cath's fan fiction is so popular that she a huge following and fans of her own.
*sidebar* For my readers of a certain age (mine) a brief, and hopefully accurate, description of fan fiction (also known as fanfiction, fanfic, FF or fic): Fan fiction describes writing by a fan of a creative work (books, movies, television shows, etc.) that appropriates characters and settings from canon - the original creative work. There are almost as many different kinds of fan fiction as there are writers of fan fiction. In most cases, fan fiction is shared with other fans via the internet. The best known work of fan fiction to date is E.L. James' 50 Shades of Grey trilogy which began as fan fiction about Edward and Bella, characters from Stephenie Meyers' Twilight books. However most writers of fan fic do not do so with the hopes of financial reward. I think that this quote from Lev Grossman, author of The Magicians, describes this phenomena best, "Fanfiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don't do it for money. That's not what it's about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They're fans, but they're not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language." *end of sidebar*
Cath and Wren write "slash fiction" (which refers to same-sex pairings of male characters who, in canon, are heterosexual) by shipping (a word derived from "relationship" that denotes the romantic pairing of fictional or non-fictional characters who are not actually in a romantic relationship) Simon and Baz, a character who, in canon, is Simon's nemesis.
*sidebar* I have to admit again here that I am old, so old that I just don't understand "slash fiction." A few years ago our family became riveted by the Steven Moffat/Mark Gattis reboot of Sherlock Holmes for the BBC. The relationship between Sherlock and John Watson on this show is engrossingly written, brilliantly acted and equally as compelling to watch as the mysteries themselves. But, I was a little put off when my daughter and other teenage girls I know told me about popularity of shipping Sherlock and John. Sure I understand the desire to write stories about these characters and their lives outside of (or between) the episodes of the television show, but I just don't get the overwhelming desire to "ship" these two fellows. However, I do get that there are no powerful female characters on this show. Even the strong, smart Irene Adler ends up being rescued by Sherlock. I have spent hours talking to my daughter, who is very involved in the Queer Straight Alliance at her college, about this, trying to understand the impulse (of, in most cases, heterosexual females) to put two male heterosexual characters into homosexual relationships in fan fiction and this is the best understanding I can come up with:
Despite the increasing presence of female characters as protagonists in books, movies and television, protagonists are still predominantly male and they still, predominately, get the best story lines in terms of action, heroics and power. Shipping two male characters gives girls/women the opportunity to imbue these strong male characters with a vulnerability and tenderness that otherwise might not exist in canon. Slash fic lets girls/women subvert the dominant paradigm by writing these fictional, heterosexual guys in a way that is ultimately feminine or better represents their feminine interests, building on the foundation of the powerful and heroic (and traditionally male) aspects of these characters that the original author imbued them with. Maybe, hopefully, once slash fic is so widely read that its ethos is culturally pervasive, authors might begin to write fiction with strong, powerful, heroic, vulnerable, tender protagonists of both genders so that fans won't have to. *end of sidebar*
At the start of the novel, Cath finds herself embarking on her freshman year at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln without the comfort/protection/friendship of her twin sister. Over the summer, Wren made the decision to try life on her own, telling Cath that she doesn't want to room with her. Cath, introverted and silent where Wren is outgoing and vociferous, is so overwhelmed by her isolation that she can't even go alone to the dining hall closest to her dorm to eat breakfast or dinner for the first few weeks of school, existing on power bars, peanut butter and lunches with Wren in her dining hall. Reagan, Cath's older, opinionated, gruff roommate (who has some of the best lines in the book) takes pity on her and a solid friendship evolves. Over the course of the year, Cath struggles with personal and familial relationships while also trying to make sense of her abilities (and increasing popularity on FanFixx as she rushes to post chapters and finish her version of the eighth and final book in the series before Leslie's is published) as a writer of fan fiction and the expectations and standards for fiction in the upperclass fiction writing class she talked her way into. Rowell deftly parallels Cath's story with excerpts from Simon Snow's story, as written by canon author, Gemma T. Leslie, and by Magicath and Wrenegade, which precede each chapter.
This layer of Simon Snow and fan fiction lifts Fangirl, which at it's heart is a coming of age story, to another level. It's clear that Cath is a gifted writer, but can she write a world and populate it from scratch in addition to successfully writing using a world created by another author? When she turns in a work of fan fiction for an assignment that calls for a piece of writing with an unreliable narrator to Professor Piper, she gets a talking to and an F. Piper calls her piece plagiarism, telling her that she is stealing from Leslie because she didn't create this world and these characters herself, regardless of the new and creative things she does with the world and characters. Having grown up in the fandom, Cath can't make sense of this, especially since she isn't trying to make money from her writing. Writing from inside this world that someone else has created and her decision to finally begin writing in her own, authentic voice unfolds alongside Cath's gradual acceptance of people who are not her sister and father and a willingness to open herself to them. Grim and unsmiling most of the time, Cath slowly, sometimes infuriatingly so, reaches out to those around her while also letting go of her sister and father. Cath's writing life, the world of Simon Snow, and her personal life dovetail in a deeply satisfying way by the end of the novel, the complex, realistically flawed characters making this a book that you will want to begin reading all over again the minute you finish. Fangirl is definitely a book that makes you think, about so many things.
Part of my job now is to be on the look out for the next *insert name of current popular author here* when reading queries and that mindset seems to follow me when I read for pleasure. As I read Fangirl, I was reminded of the writing of John Green, who wrote a stellar review of Eleanor & Park for the New York Times that prompted me to read that book. There are a couple of reasons that John Green sells the phenomenal numbers of books that he does and one of them happens to be his talent as writer, specifically his ability to create richly detailed characters that readers bond with. I think that Rainbow Rowell is every bit as talented a writer, every bit as gifted as Green when it comes to character development, and could easily be called the "next John Green," for what that's worth. Hopefully Fangirl will propel Rowell into a readership as enormous and far reaching as Magicath's, if it isn't already.
Source: Review Copy
On December 23, 2013, Rainbow Rowell and Noelle Stevenson shared some very cool details about the UK edition of fangirl that will be published on January 30, 2014. As Rainbow writes: