Sunday, August 2, 2015

Book Review: Fangirl

Rainbow Rowell is a popular name in YA fiction circles. The author of the highly-acclaimed novel, Eleanor and Park, she captures a significant number of readers. Personally, even though I thought Eleanor and Park was well-written, I didn't care for it as much as the masses. I recall it was full of expletives and teens behaving badly (similar to John Green's characters in his highly-acclaimed novel, Paper Towns). It feels like today's YA authors feel they have to appeal to the lowest common denominator and present teens in what they view to be "realistic" scenarios. I find it thoroughly discouraging.

Thus, when I selected this audio version of Rowell's novel Fangirl, I was unsure whether I would like the novel or not. For the first half of the novel, I was still skeptical, but by the end, I was sold and decided it is, indeed, well-worth the read. There were still things I didn't care for, but the writing was solid and the characters fully engaging. Mostly, I was impressed with the way Rowell manages to evoke such intense emotion and empathy in the reader. I felt the agony of abandonment right alongside Cath. I wanted desperately to reach into the novel and fix the relationship with her twin sister. And, since the novel is focused entirely on a girl who wishes to reach inside someone else's novel and manipulate the characters within it, it felt totally appropriate.

Cath Avery and her twin sister, Wren, are thoroughly caught up in the world of Simon Snow (a Harry Potter-esque series). Cath is so caught up that she writes fan fiction, creating her own alternate world with the author's characters. Plus, she's really good at it. She has a following of tens of thousands of readers (pretty impressive for a girl who is geeky and shy and just starting out timidly in her freshman year of college). But now, Cath has a new obstacle in her way: getting through her first year of school. While Wren is anxious to walk into the brave new world alone for a change (insisting that they not even room together), Cath is fearful and apprehensive of leaving their father alone in their absence. The girl's mother left the scene many years ago, when the girls were eight, saying that she just wasn't cut out for the mothering gig.

There is so much going on inside Cath's little world. Estrangement from her sister (who has always been her best friend). Loss of a comfortable boyfriend as he moves on at another college. A hostile roommate, Reagan, who really doesn't want a roommate at all and is constantly hosting her boyfriend, Levi, in their room. A highly demanding upper level fiction writing course. An attractive boy who wants to work on co-writing fiction together. A manic-depressive father who is on the verge of relapse into madness. A mother who wants to insinuate herself back into their lives.

I'll start with the things I didn't care for. I was not a big fan of the world of Simon Snow. It was too similar to Harry Potter. Moreover, the Simon Snow story wasn't even interesting. It just felt like a Harry Potter rip-off.  The real heart of the book was interrupted by the alternating passages from the official Simon Snow novels and from Cath's own fan fiction excerpts. In some ways the story did, indeed, mirror Cath's world, but this could have been accomplished with something other than a Harry Potter-wannabe story.

The whole fan fiction scenario rankled me. Cath takes Simon Snow's character and creates a homosexual relationship between Snow and his nemesis, Baz. I get why the author chose to do this. She really wanted to show that fan fiction moves into the world of real fiction and alters that reality from its own perspective. But, it felt so overly-manipulative. It felt all wrong to take someone else's fictional world and alter it to fit a separate vision. I had to nod in agreement when Cath turns in an assignment featuring her version of Simon and Baz and receives the chastisement of her professor, who labels it "plagiarism." Cath feels that it is the only thing she does really well and that attempting to build her own world would be too hard. So, here's my dilemma. You couldn't really remove the whole fan fiction element from the novel, since that is the heart of the story, but it was the fan fiction element I struggled with the most in attempting to appreciate the novel.

My second big beef was with the casual approach to teenage sexuality. Even though the author has Cath struggle with the idea of becoming sexually involved with her boyfriend (mainly out of nervousness over her perceived performance), her final conclusion is that she should pursue sexual activity with him now because who knows whether or not she will end up with him in a marriage situation and she might overlook the one chance she has to experience that with him now. Say what? I can just see this reasoning taking hold of a whole generation of young readers who look to these YA authors for answers to life's questions and have now been reinforced to plunge into the world of sexuality so that they will not miss life's grand opportunities, instead of clarifying that taking a relationship into the sexual plane intensifies everything and should not be entered into in such a frivolous, I-might-miss-out manner.

The funny thing is that the author actually presented a valid argument but focused it on smiles instead of sexuality. Cath argues that her boyfriend hands out smiles to just anyone, so how is she to know that the smile he shares with her is really anything of significance. If only the author had continued that train of thought with regard to teenage sexuality, teens might have heard a message about the importance of spending their sexual currency wisely and saving it for the one you are sure you want to invest in with the whole of your life. Instead, the reader is left with the paradoxical idea that smiles shouldn't be handed out willy nilly, but sex should be indulged in so you don't miss out on opportunities for exploring an individual you like pretty well. Sex, in this world, promises the chance to bond with both the boyfriend and the twin sister when Wren begs Cath to share any info about her first sexual experience with the boyfriend.

Now, what did I like so much? I loved the characters. Cath and Wren, although identical in many ways and equally struggling with the abandonment of their mother, approach life in such diverse ways and struggle so genuinely to establish their own identity. I thought Reagan presented the perfect blend of feistiness and compassion. I liked the dad and his struggle with very realistic problems.

I loved the boyfriend relationship. I swooned when he looked at Cath and said, "I chose you over everyone else." Who wouldn't want to hear that from someone you deeply love? Even though they did end up in bed together, I appreciated his reluctance to pressure her for any form of physical manifestation of their feelings. He was so into her and they were so good for one another.

What writer doesn't love reading about a character who loves writing and reading? It was just up my alley! The bits about writing angst rang so true. The points about just spitting the words out and editing and refining later were dead on. It reinforced the tested and true method of writing every day as a way to stand grounded and rooted in the alternate world so thoroughly that you don't lose your train of thought or purpose in the writing. I loved embracing the world Cath lived in and the struggles she faced.

The writing was very well done. As I said, the author manages to evoke such an emotional response in the reader. I cried when the mother showed up at the hospital. I cried when Cath pushed her away. I cried when Cath and her boyfriend fought over her decision to pass up the opportunity to turn in her final project for the fiction writing class. I felt every sting of injustice with the writing partner situation.

In the end, after I got a good ways in, I really enjoyed this novel. Yes, it had some bad language. I even listened to it in the kitchen while washing dishes and the boys overheard and were shocked that I didn't turn it off. I think they were feeling giddy that I allowed such foulness to reach their ears. Yes, it had some teens behaving badly, but for the most part it didn't glorify those examples (if anything Wren serves as a cautionary tale and Cath was at least hesitant about entering into a sexual relationship). No, I didn't embrace the fan fiction or the casual attitude toward sex (I made sure to listen to the sex bits out of the boys' earshot), but it all moved me so significantly and I found myself sucked into the alternate reality to such an extent that I wanted the very best for these characters and I even wanted the story to go on at the end. That is a sure mark of success. Well done, Rainbow Rowell, well done!

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