Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, 527 pp, RL: Teen
The Review Originally Appeared on 2/11/15
A couple of years ago, Rainbow Rowell gutted me with her YA novel, Eleanor & Park, a powerful story of a relationship between outsiders growing up in Nebraska in the 1980s. Her next YA novel (Rowell also writes for adults, Attachments and Landline, both of which I've read but have not reviewed. Adults can be kind of boring) Fangirl was equally amazing and opened a window on (for adults, anyway) the world of fan fiction and "shipping." With Carry On, Rowell 's main character is Simon Snow, a "fictional fictional character," as she refers to him in her Author's Note, hero of his own series of Harry Potter-esque novels and subject of the fan fiction created by Cath, the main character in Fangirl. It probably sounds a little confusing if you haven't read Fangirl and/or know nothing about fan fiction. It's probably best if you dive into Carry On with dim-ish memories of Fangirl and almost no memories of Harry Potter. If, like me, you have pretty vivid memories of both, things could get tangled in your head and you just might start asking yourself questions like the one Rowell addresses on her website: did she write Carry On as Gemma T. Leslie, fictional author of the fictional eight-book-children's adventure series, did she write as Cath, the fanfic writing star of Fangirl, or did she write as Rainbow Rowell? Her answer is this, "I'm writing as me. . . I wanted to explore what I could do with this world and these characters. So, even though I'm writing a book that was inspired by fictional fanfiction of a fictional series . . . I think what I'm writing now is canon." If you are still confused, my best advice to you is this: keep calm and read on.
For me, Carry On was most enjoyable when I was reading it for what it was - Rowell taking these two compelling characters, Simon and Baz, and letting them work things out over the course of their final year at Watford, a school for humans and other magical creatures. In Heather Schwedel's review, "Rainbow Rowell's New Book Is a Harry Potter Rip-Off That Proves How Great Fan Fiction Can Be," she writes, the "achievement of Carry On is that, even with a template more or less designed by someone else, Rowell has written a book that conjures Rowling-esque magic just as effectively as J.K. Rowling herself - and yet still feels like something new." While I admit to struggling, Rowell definitely does create something new in Carry On. A couple of years ago I reviewed the first book in Lev Grossman's trilogy, The Magicians because I was deeply interested in seeing what an author could do with the concept of a school for magicians when the students were on the verge of adulthood. Grossman is a phenomenal writer and the characters and world he created have stayed with me, but my overall take-away was that the one defining factor that makes a book about magicians for adults is the presence of overwhelming depression and hopelessness felt by the characters. Grossman's book had a level of sadness that reminded me of why I stopped reading adult novels almost entirely. Rowell's books for adults, while presenting genuinely complex struggles, just don't get as deeply sad and this is true in Carry On as well.
This isn't to imply in any way that the issues Simon and Baz grapple with in Carry On are superficial. In fact, I found Simon's storyline, his origin story and the climactic resolution, the most compelling, creative and philosophical aspect of Carry On. Rowell uses magical elements and circumstances to create tension between Simon and Baz, their relationship seamlessly flipping from antagonistic to amorous more than half way into the novel. Perhaps because I couldn't entirely quiet the Harry Potter voices in my head, waiting for this moment to arrive felt nearly interminable. But, once it did arrive (we all knew it would happen, right? And not just because Cath wrote it in her fanfic?) the pace and plot of Carry On poured out like a flood and I couldn't put the book down. While Rowell does a fine job establishing the wizarding world, the most rewarding moments in Carry On are the moments of personal interaction between the four main characters. Adults are off the page most of the time, even though, as in Harry Potter, it is the children dealing with the messes made by the adults. Rowell's take on the classicism of the wizarding world and the desire for revolution amongst the underrepresented and discriminated against magicians feels a little more American than Rowling's, despite the fact that Rowell has set Carry On squarely in England. And, knowing that Rowell is an American writing in a British voice, I sometimes found myself feeling that occasional Briticisms rang false. That said, Rowell did a superb job with her wizarding swears, my favorite being, "Nicks and Slick," uttered by Phoebe. "Crowley" and "Chomsky" were other swears that got me grinning. "Chomsky," especially, as Rowell's very cool rules for spells - words gain meaning through repeated use, therefore idioms and other phrases frequently uttered by a certain culture, are powerful spells when uttered (along with use of a wand) by magicians. Be Our Guest, Up, Up and Away, As You Were, and Scooby-Scooby Do, Where Are You? are just a few that are used to varying degrees of success over the course of Carry On.
Everyone who loves Rainbow Rowell should and will read Carry On. For those who aren't familiar with her works, Carry On could be a pretty cool introduction to her work. It almost makes me wish that I could start with Carry On and read backwards, looking to see if the magic - the powerful relationships and moving characters - that made me fall in love with her work the first time I read Eleanor & Park works both ways.