Fangirl is the third book I’ve read by Rainbow Rowell. Her work seems to be very well-received, and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far. The first book I read was Eleanor and Park, which I talked about a couple of months ago. The second was Landline, which I also enjoyed, although I’ll admit it didn’t stick quite as much as I would have liked. But I did enjoy both books a lot. They were about relationships, but it didn’t feel like the usual love story I expected them to be like. Both books had very real, flawed characters whose flaws were major antagonists. They felt like characters that mirrored real relationships, rather than characters in a love story.
From what I’ve read online, if Eleanor and Park wasn’t someone’s favorite Rainbow Rowell book, it was Fangirl. And I guess I can see why, but honestly it disappointed me more than anything else. It wasn’t a bad book, please don’t get me wrong. But I feel it had so much more potential with some of the subjects it was talking about. I’ll get to that in a little bit.
For those that haven’t read it, Fangirl is about a girl named Cath and her first year in college. She’s obsessed with Simon Snow, this book’s equivalent to the Harry Potter series. She writes fanfiction that ships Simon (who seems like a hybrid character of Harry and James Potter) and another character named Baz (who seems like a hybrid of Draco and Snape). It’s apparently a huge deal online; Cath has a ton of followers that anxiously wait for her to release the next chapter in one of her stories, and many of them like her stories more than the actual Simon Snow books.
This is Cath’s main thing. She prefers to keep to herself and do this, rather than try to meet new people or experience new things. So as you can imagine, starting college isn’t the most graceful transition for her. She was supposed to share a dorm room with her twin sister Wren, who’s been her best friend and even coauthor for most of their lives. However, Wren is really looking forward to college. She didn’t want to share a room with her sister, she wanted to reinvent herself, go out, meet new people, and totally immerse herself in the college experience.
Which is fine, except Wren starts acting like a jerk. She gradually starts distancing herself from Cath to the point of not even talking. Cath feels hurt and betrayed by her only friend, although she makes do. Her roommate, Reagan, although at first very intimidating eventually becomes her new best friend. There’s also Levi, this guy that hangs around Cath and Reagan’s room more than Reagan does, that also becomes her friend. Cath thinks he’s Reagan’s boyfriend (or at least one of them), but doesn’t find out until later that their romantic relationship ended a couple of years ago.
Cath is in a fiction-writing class, one of the only things she really enjoys about college. Her instructor, Prof. Piper, is very nice and encouraging, providing a decent adult role model in Cath’s life. There’s also a boy named Nick in their class that she writes with in the library, which is the most fun she has in college. It reminds her of when she and Wren used to write together, which fulfills something that she’s wanted to rekindle for some time.
Her first semester eventually starts falling apart, though. Wren gets really drunk and accidentally texts Cath 9-1-1 and a place to meet. Levi drives her to the place only to find out Wren meant to text her roommate, and the 9-1-1 meant she should totally be out with her right now. Cath gives up on her sister, and their relationship gets even more distant when Wren decides to take their mother’s invitation to meet up after 10 years. Their mother left them on 9/11 (I’m honestly not sure why it needed to be this day in particular, but whatever), and it left Cath with some trust issues. Cath can’t believe Wren can forgive their mother, let alone start meeting with her, and now feels threatened her mother is going to disrupt her life as well.
Prof. Piper fails one of Cath’s assignments because she thinks she plagiarized. Cath turned in one of her fanfictions, and Prof. Piper found it on the site Cath posts on. Cath explains the work on the site is hers, but Prof. Piper says that writing fanfiction is still plagiarizing because she’s using another author’s characters and worlds. They debate about this for a while, and despite Prof. Piper saying Cath has the most potential out of any of her students, Cath says she doesn’t have it in her to be a real writer. All she wants to do is write Simon Snow fanfiction. The entire experience discourages her and she ends up skipping the final assignment in the class.
Her writing friend Nick, who she started developing feelings for, also breaks her heart by saying he wants to hand in the story they’ve been working on all semester as his final project. He tries to convince Cath that she had been right when she said it’s mostly his story, and that she merely edits it, but it hurts nonetheless. She feels very used and stops seeing Nick.
She’s also started developing feelings for Levi, who has also seemingly been trying to charm her as well. She ends up reading an entire book to him because he has too much trouble concentrating on the actual reading part, and they end up kissing and falling asleep on top of each other. Reagan catches them and explains how she knew Levi liked her and it’s “fine” because Reagan and him have been over for a while, but she sets some ground rules to follow if Cath and him are to start dating. Cath is invited to go to a party Levi is throwing, which she initially says she isn’t going to. But at the last minute she goes with Reagan, only to find Levi making out with another girl. Cath leaves, with Reagan following close behind.
Cath ignores Levi for the rest of the semester, and Levi has no idea why she’s upset. Eventually, though, she’s forced to speak to him again. Her dad was sent to the hospital and Levi was the only person available to take her. While waiting, Cath eventually tells Levi she’s mad because she saw him at the party. Levi says it was just a kiss, and that he didn’t know where he and Cath were at, but Cath says there is no “just” with her. She tells him to leave, she goes home with her dad, and she says she doesn’t want to go back to college next semester.
I loved the first half of this book. I didn’t realize it before I started reading, but I don’t think I’ve read a fiction book that talks about so much of the college experience. It started touching bases on a lot of things I was really interested in seeing more of. The life-long friends that suddenly become different people and almost snub you, the weird gray area between friends and lovers, questioning what makes a relationship, thinking you know what you want to do in school but then finding out it’s not right for you, adjusting to a new place away from home for the first time, having intense semester-long friends, even something as simple as getting lost around campus — these are all great topics to showcase. I’ve read plenty of books that feature the high school setting, but after reading Fangirl, I found out how much I really wanted to read more books with this type of college setting.
And yes, there’s some personal bias there. As some of you may know, I’ve been missing college lately. Well, specific parts of college, like my creative writing workshops. Reading the first half of this book really struck a personal chord with me to the point where it actually hurt (although I’d like to think it’s a good kind of hurt). I wanted that to keep going. I wanted this book to be more than just Cath’s first year broken into two semesters. I wanted to see more, with more people coming and going, with more ups and downs. I wanted to keep reading about the confusing journey that is college.
Well unfortunately, the book didn’t do that. All those different areas of Cath’s life completely fade away; the second semester is almost exclusively about Cath and Levi’s relationship. She comes back to school. Levi… I don’t know. Grows up? Sees he did something to make Cath upset? I don’t know. Levi more or less begs for a second chance and Cath decided to give him one. The rest of the story is pretty much their honeymoon phase of the relationship, and I’d be lying if I said it was pretty painful to read through. Not the good kind of painful.
I mean some other things happen, but they seem so minor in comparison to how much attention is given to Levi. Prof. Piper gives Cath an incomplete and is willing to do a semester-long independent study with her to finish Cath’s last assignment and pass her class, which she stupidly ignores until the very last minute. Wren blacks out and is dropped off at a hospital to have her stomach pumped or something. Cath’s mom shows up, there’s an awkward couple of pages where they don’t really talk much, and then she disappears. (Did Cath’s mom really need to show up again in the story if this is what it came down to? Couldn’t she have just left when they were kids and the impact she left have been enough? Seriously, this whole mom subplot disappears as randomly as it appeared.) Nick also shows up at some point to give Cath credit for the story, but only because Prof. Piper wants to publish it in the school’s journal and she won’t publish it without both their names.
But honestly, it’s all about Cath and Levi. Holding hands. Snuggling. Smiling. Flirting. Blah blah blah blah.There’s so little conflict, the story just becomes boring. Every other thing I mentioned that happened is just a minor roadblock. In fact, many of these events seem to exist just to make Levi seem more like a knight in shining armor.
It didn’t help that I found Levi really obnoxious. From the first scene of the book, I already had the feeling that I was either going to like or hate him depending on how involved he was. Levi’s the type of character (the type of person, really) who’s always smiling. Who’s super nice to everyone. Who goes out of his way to help whoever needs help. Who’s always positive. Who loves life. Who’s very forward. Who’s very flirty. Quite frankly, he’s a toned down Augustus Waters. And if you read my Fault in Our Stars post, you can probably tell this isn’t my favorite type of character.
Honestly, he seems too perfect. And that’s boring. Really boring. Call me cynical, but his and Cath’s relationship seems more like what you would see advertised in photo frames. For someone that was so hurt by his betrayal and for someone that supposedly has a lot of trust issues, Cath sure went back to trusting and liking Levi pretty fast. And maybe that’s realistic; after all, love is weird and doesn’t make sense. I can see someone hopping back into toxic feelings.
And if she did and he broke her heart all over again by getting drunk and making out with some other girl again, then that would be fine. Maybe she could move on and learn that guys like Levi aren’t right for her (which is something she’s stated multiple times throughout the book). But that doesn’t happen. He acts obnoxiously nice all the time and wins her heart. And they have a perfect relationship that you get to read about for 200 pages. With one or two minor inconveniences, of course.
Rainbow Rowell also describes Levi as smiling too much. He’s always smiling. ALWAYS. Or grinning. Or radiating. Or whatever. The descriptions of him smiling get pretty old pretty fast. It’s like in Harry Potter when Draco and his goons HOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWL with laughter every time something embarrassing happens to Harry. After a while, the same set of descriptions get really old and really annoying. And to her credit, she does mix up the descriptions of him smiling all the god damn time. But in the end, it all means the same thing. After a while I just wanted to say, “OKAY. I GET IT. HE’S A REALLY HAPPY DUDE. STOP TELLING ME HE’S SMILING AFTER EVERY CHARACTER SAYS SOMETHING TO HIM.”
But if you’re into this sort of happy “awwwww” romance stuff… then go for it. Like I said in the beginning, it’s not a bad book. But for me, it turned out to be really disappointing. And part of that is due to taste. Compared to the character flaws in Eleanor and Park and Landline, I really thought Rainbow Rowell could have made the relationship in this book a lot better and more interesting. I’m not very interested in romantic stories where both characters just partake in each others bliss for the majority of the plot. There needs to be more conflict. The characters need to have more flaws. And while you could argue these things are present in Cath and Levi, I don’t think they’re present enough.
Like I said earlier, I was also really disappointed the book started out by delving into the complexities of a college lifestyle but then strayed so far away from that. Maybe a second read would be more positive since I would know what to expect, but I still think so many more interesting possibilities existed in Fangirl and I really wish Rainbow Rowell would have explored them more. Everything kind of conveniently fell into place by the end of the book and I sort of felt cheated. But again, this could just be me.
I’d still recommend giving Fangirl a read if you haven’t, but keep what I said in mind. It very much becomes a honeymoon phase love story in the second half, so if you’re not into that then you may want to look for something else. But either way, I’d recommend Eleanor and Park first if you wanted a love story with actual flawed characters that make the story much more interesting. And I’d even recommend Landline if you’re in the mood for a troubled marriage/midlife crisis kind of love story. But Fangirl… I don’t know. Call me blasphemous, but I wasn’t exactly rooting for Cath and Levi.
Info for my edition of Fangirl:
- Published 2013 by St. Martin’s Griffin
- Hardcover, 433 pages
- ISBN 978-1-250-03095-5