I picked this up in Foyles in Stratford a few weeks ago, having vaguely remembered that Jenny at Reading the End had enjoyed Eleanor and Park, also by this author: I read a bit in the middle, and was hooked.
Cath and her twin sister Wren are off to university in Lincoln, Nebraska. For the first time, they’ll be separated, because Wren wants to start university not as a twin but as herself, and Cath is left upset and off-balance by this decision. Terrified by the newness of the place, it takes her some time even to find the dining room in her own residence hall, and it’s only by the determined and exasperated intervention of her older room-mate, Reagan, that she starts loosening up a little and exploring parts of the campus apart from her room and lecture halls. She signs up for a creative writing class, writes with a fellow student, Nick; eventually makes friends in her other classes. Then there’s Levi, Reagan’s boyfriend, who’s friendly and charming to everyone, and who scares Cath at first – making him wait outside their room when Reagan’s not there, for example – before they become friends.
The book’s also about Cath’s fan-fiction. She’s a prolific writer, who has fans of her own, writing fic about a series of children’s fantasy novels, reminiscent of Harry Potter, about a boy named Simon Snow and his career at the Watford School of Magicks, and his antagonism with room-mate Tyrannus ‘Baz’ Basilton Pitch. Cath wants to finish her epic fan fiction (in which Simon and Baz are actually in love – reminiscent of Harry/Draco fan fiction) before Gemma T. Leslie, the books’ actual author, brings out the final book in the sequence and, as it were, sets the canon in stone.
This sounds like a pretty bald summary, but Fangirl is just delightful. Cath is nerdy and bookish and bright, despite her apprehension, and her friendships with Reagan and Levi grow naturally and organically. She gets into trouble for submitting a piece of fan-fiction for her creative writing course, not understanding her tutor’s view that she’s plagiarising – to her mind, she has written something entirely new, just using the characters Leslie has created – and only at the end of the book, once she’s finished her fic, can she write about something personal and important. But Rowell never minimises the importance of fan fiction in Cath’s life (or indeed in Wren’s, even if she isn’t quite so invested), nor suggests that fan fiction isn’t a valid form of expression.
The supporting characters are excellent, too. Wren finds the freedom of college life a little too heady, and it’s only the intervention of their father after she’s hospitalised with alcohol poisoning which brings her closer to her sister again. Their father is also really interesting – as is the way the two girls are concerned about him – but their departure from home prompts him to make some changes to his life so that they won’t worry so much. Reagan is fun, too; at first inclined to ignore her younger room-mate, she sees that unless she does something about it, Cath will not go anywhere or see anything, and so makes her come to breakfast with her, and when Cath’s meeting Nick at the library in the evening to write with him, encourages Levi to meet her and walk her back to her room. Cath’s at first distrustful of Levi’s charm and affability, and says some amusingly sarcastic things about him:
“I didn’t know you had a mother,” he said. “Or a sister. What else are you hiding?”
“Five cousins,” Wren said. “And a string of ill-fated hamsters, all named Simon.”
Levi opened his smile up completely.
“Oh, put that away,” Cath said with distaste. “I don’t want you to get charm all over my sister – what if we can’t get it out?”
I really like the way all the characters seem entirely realistic. Levi is really sweet in a way that isn’t sickly and he’s certainly no bad boy romantic typical of YA fiction. He has difficulty reading, though he has an excellent memory for things said, and the first time Cath really connects with him other than as the nice boyfriend of her room mate is when she ends up reading aloud S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders to him for his class assignment. Reagan is sardonic and cynical, but ultimately kind-hearted, and she and Cath achieve a genuine friendship. It’s also lovely to see how Cath grows in confidence in the academic year over which the book is set, both personally, and as a writer.
The UK paperback also has some lovely illustrations of some of the characters on the inside covers, by Noelle Stevenson: