Encapsulate the book in one sentence? Anxious girl at college writes smutty gay fanfiction to deal with the worries of complicated things like the dinner queue, human beings and falling in love. Intriguing, tell me more. Cathy writes Simon-Snow-who-isn’t-actually-Harry-Potter-but-y’know fan fiction. In fact, in the world of fanfic, she’s a pretty big deal. Which doesn’t help her coping with the move to college, where she has a drunken twin sister who’s pulling away, a bullish roommate and her charming ex boyfriend, a handsome librarian to deal with, and an absent mother and a fragile father at home to deal with. Personal Choice, Book-Pot, Re-read…? Personal choice. Partly because so many people had said good things about it, and partly because on one of my editorial projects I was mooting a story involving fanfiction and wanted to read the book that everyone considers the last word on the subject. What genre would you say it is? That’s oddly hard to specify. I mean, it’s kinda marketed as a female-centric YA-y chick-lit-y type thing, but that pens it into a box I don’t really think it entirely belongs in. What it actually is is a sublime coming-of-age story, funny without being all about comedy, romantic without being all about romance, sweet without being all about the sugar, and light without being full of hot air. Did you finish it? Did it work for you? God, I sped through this so fast. It’s quite hard to define what precisely it is about Rowell’s prose that’s so brilliant, but it is. It is completely, voraciously, seductively readable. And I don’t mean that in the back-handed way that literary readers use to describe airport novels, but in the sense that I started on the first sentence and travelled 200 pages in the space of about one breath. She can breathe life into characters with no discernible effort, and within a few sentences I was shrugging on the world-view of Cathy without any sense of awkwardness or weight. And you know what–I can’t underline enough how hard that is do, and how few writers actually do it well.
So yes, I absolutely bloody loved it. Like, giddy joy loved it, wanna hug all the characters loved it. Sometimes you love a book because you admire it, and sometimes you love a book because you want to climb inside it and just stay warm and cosy between the pages for a very long time, and that’s how I felt about Fangirl. And that’s before I even talk about the points of identification I could find with Cathy (seriously, this kind of anxious-but-not-incapacitated, nervous-but-not-actually-frigid, nice-but-not-actually-an-archetype character rarely gets written about, and it was great to have that little shiver of recognition over little details like, say, not going to the dining hall for your first term because you don’t want to figure out the social complexities of where the line starts.
And then–and then!–there’s the fanfiction. Firstly, as someone who cut their teeth as a kid writing Star Wars fanfic and who, as a teenager, wrote some pretty smutty Harry Potter stories under a name-that-shall-never-be-revealed on the RestrictedSection, I love that fanfiction was legitimised here. Fangirl is pretty much the planting of the flag for Fanfic Planet, encouraging all colonists, and it’s pretty awesome. Secondly, the actual Simon Snow fan-fiction in the book is so spot on (even to the level that the ‘real’ quotes read less like fan-fiction than the others, which is a subtle touch.) It’s completely on-the-nose as a parody but still functional as both its own story, and as the meta-commentary on the actual plot that it exists as. (One or the other is easy, but both is quite hard. I’ll even go so far as to say that the Simon Snow meta-world pips Lev Grossman’s Fillory to the post as the best example of the form. And from me, that is high praise.) What surprises did it hold – if any? I’ll confess, I was expecting something very fluffy from the book. Which possibly says more about my own preconceptions than anything else. I expected a decent romp, a bit funny, kinda sweet, and although it starts a bit like that, Cathy’s story is more intense and absorbing, and ultimately poignant, than I’d anticipated. Which, ultimately, was what makes Fangirl great. What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you? I always love the quiet moments in stories between the grand drama, and so in fact my favourite scene was Cathy and Levi travelling home to Cathy’s father in the grip of a snowstorm. It’s like that feel of being outside at a party for a minute, when the air is cold and wakes you up, and if the right person came out just then, you might be inclined to tell them secrets. Give me a good quote: Normally I photograph one, maybe two, quotes I like from a book. I have twelve on my phone from reading Fangirl. Begrudgingly, I’ll go with three, one that’s about the joy of writing which is the core of the book, the second because it nailed something I can’t define about anxiety, and the third because it really made me laugh.
She tried to put into words how it felt, what happened when it was good, when it was working, when the words were coming out of her before she knew what they were, bubbling up from her chest, like rhyming, like rapping, like jump-roping, she thought, jumping just before the rope hits your ankles. “To share something true,” another girl said. Another pair of Ray-Bans. Cath shook her head. “Why do we write fiction?” Professor Piper asked. Cath looked down at her notebook. To disappear.
Her dad was wrong about worrying. Cath liked to worry. It made her feel proactive, even when she was totally helpless. Like with Levi. Cath couldn’t control whether she saw Levi on campus. But she could worry about it, and as long as she was worrying about it, it probably wasn’t going to happen. Like some sort of anxiety vaccine. Like watching a pot to make sure it never boiled.
Neither of them wanted Sir Bleakly to hear – he was prone to giving ridiculous detentions; they could end up dusting the catacombs for hours, or proofreading confiscated love notes.
What do you mean, bad reviews? I love reading bad reviews of books I like. A few complaints from goodreads:
“Everyone knows Harry Potter! What’s the point of mimicking it?” Even if copyright wasn’t a problem, the pastiche is what makes the fanfiction clever. If you’d prefer, go print out some Harry Potter slash, get some scissors and a glue-stick, and paste a paragraph of your choice over the excerpts.
“The fanfiction excerpts are badly written!” I think you’re missing the point, love.
“Cath is hopelessly naive.” Technically this is true, I suppose. The implication of this criticism is that she is unrealistically naive though, which I can attest is bollocks. If you substitute art for writing, my best friend throughout adolescence and on to this day is incredibly similar to Cath, and I love that there is a reflection of her in a book, because I can count on one hand the times that character gets to tell their story without being mocked.
“LEVI COULD JUST HAVE GOT AN AUDIOBOOK. PLOT HOLE.” You have no soul, do you?
Is it available today? It’s available, like, everywhere. Everywhere. Soundtrack of choice: I should probably use ‘Talk Dirty To Me’ shouldn’t I? But I’m actually going with The Bird and the Bee – Again and Again. Don’t quite know why though, but it just feels like the right soundtrack.