I finally ordered Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl after seeing it a few times on shelves and hearing enough mentions of it. It is a New Adult contemporary, so it features a main character going into her first year of college (if you want to learn more about New Adult, take a look at my earlier blog post).
Although I went into the story expecting a light-hearted, humorous read, I instead found the humor surrounded by serious content. Rowell’s story of a fangirl finding her place touches on a variety of real-life situations, including family trouble, dating anxiety, and the struggle to embrace college life, and the representation of these struggles might help soothe anyone who can relate to them.
Fangirl follows Cath, a girl whose life primarily revolves around writing fanfiction about her favorite book character, Simon Snow. When her twin, Wren, decides she wants to branch out on her own in college, Cath faces an onslaught of anxiety about her first year of college without her usual crutch to lean on.
Instead she winds up with a tough-as-nails roommate named Reagan and Reagan’s ex-boyfriend, Levi, who is all smiles all the time. Through her freshman year, Cath faces a falling out with her sister, worry for her unstable father, a reminder of her painful past with her mother, a confusing crush on Levi, and the possibility that she doesn’t have what it takes to go beyond fanfiction.
Fangirl felt a little slow at times, but keep in mind I read it directly after a high-stakes fantasy series. It did not meet my expectations for light-hearted humor, but I do recommend it for anyone interested in a thoughtful contemporary novel featuring a college-aged main character and hints of fandom elements. Cath isn't necessarily likable all the time, but she does feel real, and that's important.
If you've already read Fangirl or are unopposed to spoilers, read on for my more detailed analysis of the relatable content.
Fangirl contains a variety of potentially relatable content.
In some ways, I found Cath very frustrating. I couldn’t relate to her attachment to fanfiction, and many of her actions were incredibly self-destructive, particularly her abandonment of school assignments. However, Cath represents a very real personality, and many of her struggles reflect realistic sources of anxiety for someone experiencing her first year of college.
The Battle to Embrace College
Some people embrace college from the first moment they step on campus—others struggle a lot longer.
"Every freshman month equals six regular months--they're like dog months" --Levi, Fangirl .
When I started Fangirl, Cath’s reaction to college seemed extreme. She avoided the cafeteria for weeks and barely interacted with anyone besides an occasional meal with her sister and forced interactions with Reagan and Levi.
But then I thought back to my own freshman year in college and realized Cath’s reactions are grounded in reality for many students. I remember the first time I ate in the cafeteria and thought of the same concerns that keep Cath away for so long: How do the lines work? Where do you get the plates? Where do you put the plates when you’re done? It seems laughable after years of eating in that same cafeteria, but that first night, I grabbed the quickest and easiest source of food I saw—a corn dog—and got out fast.
Cath’s concern about the cafeteria sparked the first connection between us, but several situations throughout the book speak to anyone who has struggled to embrace college from the start.
“She lifted her chin up and forced her forehead to relax. ‘I’m the Cool One,’ she told herself. ‘Somebody give me some tequila because I’ll totally drink it. And there’s no way you’re going to find me later having a panic attack in your parents’ bathroom. Who wants to French-kiss?’” --Cath, Fangirl.
While Wren seemingly lives the high life at college parties every weekend, Cath actively avoids them. She doesn’t scorn the other characters for drinking—although she does express concern for Wren’s health—but she has zero interest in participating herself. I find it important that Cath does not compromise this aspect of her character by the end of the book; her journey is not about learning to fit in at a college party, but rather about feeling comfortable with who she is in a new location and around new people.
“It’s just . . . everything. There are too many people. And I don’t fit in. I don’t know how to be. Nothing that I’m good at is the sort of thing that matters there. Being smart doesn’t matter—and being good with words. And when those things do matter, it’s only because people want something from me. Not because they want me”--Cath, Fangirl.
Cath’s attempt to leave her college halfway through her freshman year reflects very realistic feelings of anxiety and concern. Many students have likely felt this way after their first semesters of college, and it’s important that a character like Cath serves as a source of relatability. Not only can she show that people have these feelings, but also that it’s possible to turn the situation around, as Cath eventually does.
Levi and Romance
“I don’t think I’m any good at this. Boy—girl. Person—person. I don’t trust anybody. Not anybody. And the more that I care about someone, the more sure I am they’re going to get tired of me and take off”--Cath, Fangirl.
Cath’s romantic relationship with Levi isn’t as prominent in the story as I expected it to be, but it still depicts a realistic struggle that many novels for young people do not. Although Cath feels attraction to Levi, she does not jump straight into a physical relationship with him, even after they begin dating. In fact, weeks pass before she feels comfortable enough to kiss him again. Her anxiety about physical contact—despite her simultaneous desire for that physical contact—could be very familiar to many readers. Unfortunately, this level of anxiety is not often shown in fictional relationships, and it should be.
“She’d always thought that either people could read or they couldn’t. Not this in-between thing that Levi had, where his brain could catch the words but couldn’t hold on to them. Like reading was one of those rip-off claw games they had at the bowling alley”--Cath, Fangirl.
Levi also stands out compared to many male love interests because he has a learning disability. Although he can read, he doesn’t process the information well, and this forces him to go to much further lengths than other students to pass his classes. I appreciate Rowell’s inclusion of this disability because—just like Cath—many readers might not be aware that people in real life struggle in a similar way to Levi.
“Have you ever heard sculptors say that they don’t actually sculpt an object; they sculpt away everything that isn’t the object? . . . Well, I’m writing everything that isn’t my final project, so that when I actually sit down to write it, that’s all that will be left in my mind”--Cath, Fangirl.
Cath has many relatable thoughts about writing. Although she loves writing fanfiction, she also faces the sheer amount of work involved in writing stories—particularly when it comes to her own fiction rather than fanfiction.
“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”--Cath, Fangirl.
I love these descriptions of the trials and tribulations of writing. Even as I write this blog post, I feel like I’m swimming upstream. I know in general what I want to say, but I have to find a way to actually say it. Sometimes writing comes easily and sometimes every word is a battle. Although Cath loves the ease with which she writes fanfiction, writing her own fiction seems nearly impossible to her.
“Everything starts with a little truth, then I spin my webs around it—sometimes I spin completely away from it. But the point is, I don’t start with nothing”--Professor Piper, Fangirl.
As Cath must learn, the difficulty of writing her own fiction shouldn’t hold her back. She learns from Professor Piper that she needs to find her foundation, and build from there. This lesson applies to many struggles in life. Sometimes looking at the bigger picture only serves to psych you out. If you find a more comfortable place to start, the situation might be much easier to overcome.
Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl turned out to be a much heavier read than I expected, but I appreciate the realistic depiction of anxieties concerning college, romance, and career paths. Clearly Cath does not represent a majority of freshmen in college, but it is important to have such portrayals in fiction for those who do struggle in a similar way. If you want to pick up a copy of Fangirl, head to your local library or bookstore, or find it online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Also be sure to check out Rainbow Rowell's website.
What are your thoughts? If you've read Fangirl, feel free to share your own opinions.
I write YA fantasy and contemporary fiction. This blog is dedicated to thoughts and advice on writing and publishing, as well as various interests related to the world of Young Adult.