This was a big surprise for me. I really didn't expect to like it - First, I had read and greatly disliked this author's almost universally loved Eleanor & Park. And second, the first fiftyish pages seemed to back up my apprehension about the writing style and the overly precocious main character. And then... well it gets good. And funny. And just so charming. And so-on-the-nose that it's almost painfully easy to relate to and with Cath. I was going to write off reading any future (or past) Rowell books if this attempt didn't work out, but instead, I find myself (tentatively) sitting on the "fan" side of the fence. Fangirl has a lot of heart, and it really does have a lot to recommend it. If you loved Eleanor & Park, or even if you didn't, I think this is a much stronger novel; one that better showcases Rowell's talents and allows her characters to shine.
Around a third into the novel, I was starting to get caught up in the tale being told. Rowell may not impress straight out of the gate, but she more than makes up for lost time when she hits her stride. She writes with humor, earnestness, and true understanding of how a homebody/nerd/writer would feel once away from home, and out of her element. If you've ever felt like a fish out of water, or didn't fit into college right away, Cath's story will feel almost too familiar. Rowell gets it. She knows, or remembers, how that first-time-on-your-own truly feels and she put those feelings into words so neatly here in Fangirl. The creation of the books of Simon Snow with which Cath is obsessed - which to me reads like a mix of Harry Potter (mages, wizards, school of wizardry) mashed with Twilight (creeper vampire love interest watches someone sleep, overly done love triangle) - will send readers into nostalgia for how they once (or still do in my case) feel about their favorite fandoms.
I think a lot of readers will identify with Cath, either willingly or otherwise. She's a complex mix of flaws and humor; she's a loner, but she isn't alone. She makes mistakes, she judges prematurely, she's stubborn and imperfect. But you still grow to like and care about this mess of a girl. Most notably, Cath hasn't had the easiest of lives and finds solace in her preferred fandom and in writing some pretty-well known and widely read fanfiction as "Magicath." And while I admit I wasn't the biggest fan of the fanfiction examples/"Simon Snow" excerpts interjected before some chapters (I even skimmed the later ones...) I still found a lot to enjoy about Cath's story. Her ongoing struggle to find a life independent of the twin sister she has always relied on is both honest and real. Honestly, Cath struggles with a lot throughout Fangirl: to reconcile a real life with her online obligations, to find friends of her own, to love someone beyond the omnipresence of Simon Snow and Baz. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's awkward, sometimes it's embarrassing, but through the novel, Cath takes risks, tries new things, and grows as a character.
In such a character-focused novel, presenting three-dimensional and complicated characters is key and Rowell succeeds - not only with Cath, but her sister Wren, her roommate Regan, her friend Levi, with the mom she has never really known.. etc. Characterization really is the strongest aspect of Rowell's writing. There is a plot at the heart of the novel, but it's one that has been done many times before in YA/NA that is really takes backstage to the characters on the page. The reason it's so easy to care about Cath and her friends is because they are all so well-drawn on the page. No one is perfect, no one is boring. The romance isn't perfect, but it is sweet and slow-building, and through its inevitable ups-and-downs, Rowell makes you root for Cath to find a way to a real relationship. With a nonfictional vampire/mage.
If I had made a bet with myself before starting Fangirl about whether I'd like it, I would have lost. My preconceptions were wrong. As a continuing member of some pretty intense fandoms myself (hello, Harry Potter, hello Supernatural!), Cath's story is close to home in so many ways. Rowell has an impressive ability to capture her audience with fresh characters, subtle story lines, and true humor. Her writing is not without an occasional stumble (the fetal smile sentence is laughable, really), but for the most part, it is smart and authentic (emergency Kanye dance party, anyone?). So many topics are touched on in Fangirl - what it means to be family, real friends, first love, college, first times, alcoholism, mental health - but Rowell carries it off rather well for such a long and varied story.
I will buy a copy of Fangirl when it comes out. I can't wait for a chance to revisit Cath and Regan and Levi and Simon Snow and Wren. For a novel that wasn't expected to do much for me, I have thought about this novel a lot in the two weeks since I finished it. It's cute and fun and funny and moving. I don't think my review does this smart little novel justice. Just know that if you were curious about it, or if you're passionate about a fandom, Fangirl is likely a book for you. Rainbow Rowell has grown and improved as an author and this story is diverting and engrossing in the best of all possible ways.