‘Fangirl’ full of humanity, hope

It’s been a long time since I’ve stayed up until 4 a.m. to finish a book, but Rainbow Rowell’s latest release, “Fangirl,” kept me up past my bedtime. “Fangirl” is unexpectedly complex. It examines the aches and joys of life in a situation many college students can identify with.

Cath and her identical twin sister, Wren, are starting their freshman year at a college in Nebraska. Wren is looking forward to the freshman experience, leaving Cath hiding in her room writing Simon
Snow fan fiction. Simon is a world-wide phenomenon, a series of books about the strongest magician in generations, set in a world filled with magic, vampires and werewolves. If it sounds familiar, try searching fan fiction for Harry Potter, which Rowell has admitted was one of the inspirations for the story.

Cath writes a piece called “Carry On, Simon,” where she manipulates the characters of the Simon novels, making him fall in love (eventually) with his brooding, vampiric roommate, Baz. It gets thousands of online hits per day, and she uses the writing to escape from her life. Wren seems to have abandoned her. Their father is maybe a little too manic. Her roommate, Reagan, doesn’t like anyone, except for Levi, the boy who constantly shows up in their room. Cath can’t seem to find the words to write her own stories for an upper-level fiction writing class.

None of this complexity was expected when I picked my copy up at the library. Everything from the title to the characters on the cover to the subject of fan fiction made me expect some light, frothy “chick lit.” Maybe something frivolous with embarrassing humor thrown in. This was not so.

I caught myself crying halfway through the book – not oh-my-favorite-character-just-died tears, but clean-the-soul sort of tears. Keep in mind “Fangirl” is not a downer. It’s full of humanity and hope, and Rowell’s style is honest and easy to read. Even without anyone falling over cliffs, she draws the reader gently onward through Cath’s seemingly mundane first year of college.

Cath – ridden with anxieties, feeling out of place and trying to cope with a new living situation and all the new people – is the person I remember being as a freshman.

Despite the aspects of Cath that I find identifiable, she is still very much her own, fully-developed character. That’s what makes “Fangirl” worth a read, really. Cath, as well as Wren, their dad, Levi, and Reagan are so well-written, with their own motivations and problems that they are worth meeting, even if it’s in the pages of a book. Even the characters that fill only a few pages have surprising depth.

Cath’s world, instantly familiar to anyone who has started freshman year of college away from home, surprised me with its clarity and the intricacy of the characters’ lives and personalities. It just goes to show, once again, that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

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