Reading & Reviewing: Fangirl

So, I haven’t posted one of these in ages, largely out of what could be a sheer sense of apathy, but also because I’ve been trying to sort poorly defined things…

But whatever, if I get some of my old audience (that may have existed?) looking at this again, on top of maybe some new people who’s interest may have been peaked by the new subject matter, that’ll be something. So, this is a start of (hopefully) a series of opinion pieces pertaining to books I’ve read recently.

As a young, feeble, insufferable know-it-all, I used to devour books. Harry Potter is a prominent example – I’ve lost count of all the times I’ve reread (or re-listened to, thanks to my old friend Stephen Fry, who doesn’t know me at all) that particular series. However, as I entered my adolescence, for some reason, I found that my ability to devour books was waning, maybe because people expected me to read more adult books, or, God forbid, more masculine books. Whatever the reason, I found my interest in books wasn’t what it once was, which, for an aspiring writer, is not a great sign. But since I’ve tried to take a more serious approach to getting on with, what I hope are decent literature ideas, it’s probably best I see what other authors have to offer. In no particular pattern, I decided on some books to read, and here I shall be reviewing the first of these, Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

I acknowledge first and foremost that as a heterosexual male I’m not the intended primary audience for this book, and also that, being it a little while since I’ve finished this book (hooray for procrastination), my memory on some of the scenes might be a little fuzzy…
That said, the subject matter of this book is what endeared me to it in the first place, so I can’t be that far removed from the audience. Given what I did end up enjoying in this book, I don’t think my issues with it should just be dismissed outright. What did I enjoy? What did I find issue with? I suppose I’d better let you know.

First, a brief summary. The protagonist of this book is a girl named Cath, approaching 18, and starting college (or university, as we say in the UK) with her twin sister Wren. Despite the fact that the two of them have been inseparable since their childhood, they acknowledge the inherent differences between, notably that Cath is more withdrawn, and Wren has the slightly more outgoing, sociable resolve. These differences deepen as they arrive at college, and are separated for the first time, Wren opting for separate rooms to allow herself to develop more, and Cath withdraws even more, mostly sticking to herself and writing the fanfiction that she and Wren had done during their teen years.

Oh yeah, should probably mention that…
Both of them are huge fans of a fictional series called Simon Snow, which, whilst sounding like a rather generic fantasy series, is presented as being a phenomenon that’s an obvious expy of the Harry Potter franchise, quite amusingly so. At the moment at which the story starts, the eighth and final installment of Simon Snow is in the making, and Cath is getting on with her lengthy fanfiction which a lot of her readership consider to be the true eighth installment, or at least should be what the eighth installment should be like, and includes a common selling-point of having the main character (Simon, duh) engaging in a romantic story arc with Baz, the character who’s portrayed within the context of the canon series as a bitter rival. Clearly, Gemma T. Leslie (the author of Simon Snow) hasn’t done her research when it comes to the way fan communities treat rivalries, particularly male ones. Whether it be Harry and Draco, Naruto and Sasuke, or Light and L, there’s going to be love-making in the fanfiction…

The point is, Cath’s so content to retreat into that particular world, that the effect it has on her interactions within her college life is obvious – she takes an instant dislike to Wren’s roommate and the two of them begin to drift apart, and she struggles with general socialization and her classes. She is willing to give up on the higher education several times throughout the book, but the people who stick by her, notably her father, her cynical roommate and her cynical roommate’s slightly overly-saccharine ex (watch out for him, more on him later) soon help her to get on with it…I’ll try not to go into too much detail of the plot here, but I will say that there’s not much to spoil. Pretty much what you expect will happen happens.

So, the strengths of this book lie in how well it’s able to capture the image of a dedicated fan. As a fan, and an author of fanfiction, as it happens, a good chunk of Cath’s internal monologuing about her fan community resonates heavily with me. Several times I found myself going ‘oh yeah, that’s totally like that…’ and was furthermore amused by how the author managed to avoid dreaded copyright issues by the age-old but lovely trick of making terribly similar things to known brands to cover her tracks. For example, instead of Fanfiction.net, we have FanFixx.net, and instead of Wikipedia, we have Encyclowiki. The book opens with an Encyclowiki article on Simon Snow. For some reason, the whole de-fictionalization process she attempted to go through I found really enjoyable. I can’t help it – it’s a way of seeing the world in which the story’s set seem a lot more real. Complete with extracts from the books and Cath’s own fanfiction!

Ah, yes…let’s talk about those, shall we?
As much as I appreciated the attempt to flesh out fictional worlds within fictional worlds, they did start become a bit tedious as time wore on, partially because they really did serve no purpose to the continuation of the plot, but also because…well, Gemma T. Leslie’s writing isn’t very good. Whether that was intentional on the actual author’s part or not isn’t entirely clear, but in between chapters there are extracts, sometimes from Simon Snow books, and I always found myself rolling my eyes at the terrible narm spoused from the character’s mouths and the way they’re described with their bishounen hair and all the rest of it…again, it may have been intentional, but I’m not sure what purpose it served. I also had a few minor nitpicks with Rowell’s writing style, often because she randomly describes a character’s appearance in the middle of conversation. If you don’t mind that kind of thing, that’s fine, but I happened to find it quite jarring.

What about the characters? Ever my favourite thing of nearly any story, this book had to carry itself with mostly character design and development and…eh, it does OK. Cath and Wren’s relationship is the highlight of it. You do begin to get a sense of the history they’ve shared as it moves on and the ache that Cath feels during the times in which they’re not speaking to much. Wren herself is a breath of fresh air compared to a lot of books (or indeed WattPad stories) I’ve seen in this kind of environment, because she’s never shamed for extroversion and her rather hedonistic attitude, and her character is further deepened by the understanding that she is nearly as geeky as Cath still, and, as revealed later on in the book, is still loyally reading her fanfiction, to which Cath is moved.

Cath is OK as a character too – not the strongest protagonist I’ve ever seen, but perfectly serviceable. Her character arc is pretty clear, but it works fine – learning to embrace things out of her comfort zone and acknowledging that there’s no shame in changing herself somewhat, if it’s for a benefit. There’s this pretty poignant scene early on where Cath hands in an assignment of creative writing. Sticking to what she knows, she writes a short story about Simon and Baz, and her teacher/lecturer/whatever, who goes by the fantastic name of Professor Piper fails her for it, pointing out that what she did was essentially tantamount to plagiarism. This shakes Cath quite a bit, and confesses that she’s not all that good at coming up with original stories, but Piper, bless her, believes in her and continues to encourage her. What Cath eventually turns in is a nice conclusion, which I’m not going to give away, but essentially it does reflect a truth that any writer will find – better writing comes with experience.

Cath’s roommate Reagan is an interesting beast, but I have to say, I really like her, or at least, I like the role she plays. From the beginning she is cynical, fairly loud and unapologetic in her dealings and about as different from the introverted Cath as you can imagine. And yet…well, you can probably see where this is going. They do get on. I’m not going to go into details about it, it’s a nice touch, just read it for yourself.

And then there are the guys. *Sigh*

OK, my biggest issue with this book, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the romance. The guy Cath ends up being involved with is called Levi, and once upon a time, he was with Reagan. The fact that he spends a lot of time with Reagan is a pretty nice set-up, because they play a role almost like parental substitutes to Cath in the beginnings of the book, Levi’s cheeriness being a foil to Reagan’s cynicism, and that really works. And this is where the problem comes in – with such a dynamic, I always found Cath and Levi’s interactions to be sibling-like, with Levi acting as an older brother to her. And so, the later romantic interactions they had were…revolting.

OK, that’s an exaggeration, but I remember reading them and pulling faces the entire way through, although part of that could be also to do with the awkward way they way written. In some cases, that was probably intentional, but not in all. Maybe my own cynicism is showing, but the subjective incest aside, Levi’s character commits a much graver sin.

Let me try and set it out for you – this is a guy who spends most of his time in an unbridled, extroverted cheeriness. He gets on with anyone, but for reasons that aren’t properly explained, he has an instant (yes, that is confirmed by him later) romantic attraction to Cath the second he claps his eyes on her, and would like nothing better that to have her read him the fanfiction she wrote all day. Without much of his own backstory or life fleshed out, his role in this story is to get Cath out of her shell, boost her confidence and allow her to do new things. Is this description beginning to sound uncomfortably familiar?

Through what I have observed, Levi is essentially a textbook version (albeit a gender-flipped example) of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

A point could be made in that he is given something of a backstory and character traits beyond how Cath defines his role – he is revealed to, because possibly dyslexia, attention deficit disorder or maybe something else, struggle with reading and therefore come close to failing some assignments, but really that serves the purpose as to have him invite Cath to read things to him. He also had an apparently rocky history with Reagan, given that they broke up because she couldn’t stay monogamous. But he doesn’t seem particularly upset about that, and it just gives all the more reason for him and Cath to be together, Cath’s introversion being very important to the focus she gives on him. Although props to the story for not slut-shaming Reagan for her insatiability. Although infidelity is another matter…actually, the narrative weirdly breezes over the whole thing. Hm.

It feels a shame to have to bring this up, because Levi is a merciful break for all the love interests that have to be total dicks in order to be love interests. He’s a genuinely nice person, and not someone I’d mind meeting. It’s just a shame how obviously flat he is. The reason this matters is because Rowell spent so much time crafting a real world seperate from the fictional one that Cath enjoys staying in, and part of coming-of-age is acknowledging the flaws and and issues that the real world has. And neither Cath or Wren are idealised heroines, mercifully. The differences in personality they have are accepted as just differences, and things that they can work through. The transition Cath makes from a shielded fictional world to a flawed, but ultimately more rewarding real one would be so much more poignant if there was a more difficult, more realistically portrayed romance. And I’m not saying that Cath and Levi’s relationship is entirely without minor dramas or disagreements, but these are resolved remarkably fast, or else based on complete misunderstandings, because Levi REALLY needs Cath for…I have no clue. Cath’s development makes her a much more interesting character than she is without her cardboard cut-out.

Perhaps realising this, the story does actually intend to fake us out in terms of romance, but unfortunately not well enough. It’s never in any doubt who Cath’s going to end up with (particularly as Levi’s on the cover with her), but it’s not as though I didn’t vainly hope…

First there’s Cath’s actual boyfriend at the beginning of the story. He’s called Abel, for which he has my greatest sympathies, and apparently is…well, we know very little about him actually, other than that he may be more introverted and awkward than Cath herself, and he breaks up with her pretty fast. The sheer boringness of how he’s displayed do unfortunately create an all too obvious and appealing contrast to someone like Levi.

Oh, and then there’s Nick…
Nick seems a strange choice for my preferred love interest, because, if you cast your minds back to That Life, he carries a great deal of the traits that annoy me. He’s muscular (something that Levi isn’t, interestingly), something that Cath notes, apparently attractive enough to gain the attention of other girls, and possesses a rather smooth flirtacious banter that I distinctly lack. So, yeah – he has every reason to bring back my own personal insecurities, but the role he plays in this story is actually fairly interesting.

A fellow of Cath’s Fiction Writing class, he pairs up with her in various assignments so they can assist each other in their own writing drawbacks, although Cath does end up helping him a lot more, because he has the tendency to create one-note protagonists that Cath notes are very similar to him. There’s a bit of conflict near the end where he attempts to pass of an assignment that she helped him edit simply with his own name, which everyone finds a pretty douchey thing to do. And…yeah, it is, but the fact that his politeness to Cath never wavers makes me think that he might not even realise what the problem is. Narcissistic and self-obsessed? Or just ignorant? Maybe both? At any rate, this is the set-up for a much more interesting and controversial romance.

But wait! I hear you cry. Didn’t you just say you hated it when love interests were total wankers? Why yes, I do, but there are many ways you can make someone’s flaws be genuine issues without them being completely horrible. And Nick didn’t seem to be completely horrible, just a bit misguided and clearly in need of decent emotional intelligence. Wouldn’t it have been so much more interesting if both Cath and Nick worked through their own personal flaws together whilst helping each other with their writing? Nick helping Cath with original characters, and Cath helping Nick with decent characters? That would be a romance I could get behind. I might even forgive Nick for being more attractive than me. Personally, I think it was a tragically missed opportunity. TEAM NICK!

So, overall, what do I think of this book? It’s pretty good. Definitely better than you might expect, but at the same time suffers from some rather glaring problems and…is probably too long. Still, I’d recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in some of the themes I’ve laid out here, and even for those who are annoyed by the same things that annoy me, you may interpret it differently. Who knows?

I’ll post again soon, likely reviewing the book I read after this, or an another anime series. Until then, feel free to comment and share with your friends…y’know, all that good stuff…

 

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