Is the subject too niche? Are readers putting all their support behind Eleanor & Park?
I lurve E&P. You know I do. But Fangirl is the stronger book. It’s richer thematically, has better characterizations, a more complex story, and a fascinating structure. If only one of Rowell’s novels is recognized by the Real Committee this year, it should be Fangirl.
Before we dig into the text, let’s judge the book by its cover. Fangirl’s features gorgeous a pastel illustration depicting a guy trying to get the attention of a girl who is busily typing on a laptop, while a thought bubble shows her thinking about two boys in love—two boys in capes. If you don’t know anything about the plot, but know about fanfiction, you can probably guess the premise of the book from the cover. (The artwork is by Noelle Stevenson, known online as gingerhaze. She’s the creator of a webcomic and terrific fanart.) Even when we don’t mean to, we do make snap judgments based on what we see before we read a single word. This cover says a whole lot about the book inside. On the surface, Fangirl is a rom-com for geeks.
But look again.
There’s something else on that cover. Take a look at where the girl (the titular character, Cath) is sitting. She’s sitting on the title. “A novel” is written on her laptop’s screen. By having the subjects collide with the informational text, the art conveys that this is a novel about writing.
Fangirl is delightful and bursting with appeal; my teen students have read it and loved it. But this is a book that’s bigger on the inside. This is a deeply layered and fascinating text, one that has been as fun to dissect as it was to read for the first time. And it’s all there on the cover.
Rowell is a master at third person limited narration. Just enough of her authorial voice is present while allowing the flavor of the novel’s story and characters to shine. Attachments takes on the social awkwardness yet lovability of its protagonist, Lincoln. Eleanor & Park throbs with an angsty ‘80s beat. Fangirl is introspective and quirky. Rowell’s voice is immediately identifiable but always harmonious with the individual novel.
In Fangirl, voice is particularly important because there are three separate authorial voices: Rowell’s, Gemma T. Leslie’s, and Cath’s, nested together like matryoshka dolls. Between chapters of the book about Cath, there are passages from Cath’s fanfic and the Simon Snow series that inspires it. The most impressive of the three is Rowell’s writing as Gemma T. Leslie, the author of Cath’s beloved books. Leslie is a J.K. Rowling-esque writer, so Rowell infuses Leslie’s voice with some of the Harry Potter author’s style. Rowling’s habit of qualifying dialogue with adverbs is also Leslie’s, and characters don’t just talk, they stammer, grumble, and whisper. As one would expect, Cath’s writing shares this trait in her Simon Snow fanfiction. The excerpts from her fanfic demonstrate that she is just as good as has been implied, but that she is most definitely mimicking Gemma T. Leslie, with bits of her own voice peeking through. There are moments when Rowell’s authorial voice merges with Cath’s. There is a particularly fun paranthetical when Rowell (or we could read it as Cath) wonders if boys giggle or chuckle. Of course, later on in the novel in one of the excerpts from Carry On, Simon giggles with Baz. It’s a subtle and wonderful connection to the earlier instance when that word choice was pondered.
These three voices (four, if you count Rowling’s invisible influence) are a wonderful example of how intertextuality manifests in an author’s use of language. This is something Rowell shows literally in Cath’s writing sessions with Nick as she writes in between, around, and above his words, reshaping his anti-love story while allowing some of his style to influence her own use of language. Their working relationship provides great romantic and dramatic tension, as well as a suitable foil for our heroine; it’s also another example of the ways in which text is the space where multiple texts converse and influence each other. (Full disclosure: I wrote a few papers on this topic as an undergrad, so please excuse any dryness in my tone. I’m a recovering English major with a soft spot for post-structuralism.)
That’s the beauty and brilliance of Fangirl: it’s a highly enjoyable, swoon-worthy coming-of-age tale. It’s about family, what happens when our closest relationships fray, how we cope with leaving home for the first time; it’s a sensitive exploration of people living with anxiety, of dealing with the literal and metaphorical end of your childhood, and learning how to be in a real romantic relationship. Fangirl is readable. It’s authentic. It’s perfect for teens as aspirational reading and perfect for adults (particularly millennials) as nostalgic reading.
But, and I can’t stress this enough, this book is wicked smart.
As an exploration of why we write, Fangirl is metatext. What motivates a writer to tell stories? What responsibility does the act of writing put on the writer? Cath writes to escape herself, yet she feels responsibility to her fans. She is very much conscious of her audience, but the extrinsic is not her main motivator; it’s simply a validation of everything that she values in herself. “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.” Her journey throughout the novel is learning to value herself outside of her escape into Simon and Baz’s world where she feels comfortable and knows she can feel success.
In addition to Cath’s metatextual creative and emotional growth, Fangirl is metafictional. When they eat in the cafeteria Reagan and Cath create stories out of the interactions they observe. Cath can’t “shake the feeling that she was pretending to be a college student in a coming-of-age movie.” Cath describes Nick’s story as “Mary Sue to the tenth power.” Even throwaway lines support this reading of the text. After winning a round of bowling, Levi (wearing a shirt on which he has written, The Strike Out King) states: “Everything I write on my shirt comes true.” Cath and Levi bond as she reads her fanfiction to him. Words, language, and storytelling are everywhere, because the text is wonderfully self-aware.
Just as in Eleanor & Park, pop culture is a part of the characters’ identity formation. Cath quips that she needs her glasses to keep “from becoming the girl in She’s All That.” Cath’s dad tries to convince her that he shouldn’t have the main role her life now that’s a freshman in college by citing 90210. Rowell’s proven herself as a writer who gets how people think in pop culture. She’s a native speaker, not a mere observer, which is why these references and her style is always pitch perfect and authentic. It is arguably more important here than in E&P because this novel is a space where so many texts meet, and where intertextuality is such an important theme.
I’m kicking myself for not getting this review up sooner (this is what happens when you think too much and try to read other books at the same time). It is absolutely one of the top five books of the year and deserves more recognition than it’s received to this point. So this is me, shouting from a virtual rooftop to say that Fangirl is one of the best of the year. You may have noticed that voting is open until 7pm and we will have our honor book voting soon. Unfortunately I voted before I really cemented my thoughts for this review; if I were to do it again, I certainly would have thrown some support behind Fangirl for gold.
- In the world of Simon Snow, Doug Henning exists. That is AWESOME.
- “What the fuck is ‘the fandom’?” Reaction of every non-fan, ever.
- “…his eyebrows were practically sentient.”
- This is my public plea to Rainbow Rowell to please, please write at least one Simon Snow book. That is all.
I still have a lot to say about this book, and I want to know your opinions. This conversation is long overdue!