UK Publisher: Macmillan Children’s Books
Genre: Contemporary fiction, YA
Cath and Wren are identical twins, and until recently they did absolutely everything together. Now they’re off to university and Wren’s decided she doesn’t want to be one half of a pair any more – she wants to dance, meet boys, go to parties and let loose. It’s not so easy for Cath. She’s horribly shy and has always buried herself in the fan fiction she writes, where she always knows exactly what to say and can write a romance far more intense than anything she’s experienced in real life.
Without Wren Cath is completely on her own and totally outside her comfort zone. She’s got a surly room-mate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words . . . And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone.
Now Cath has to decide whether she’s ready to open her heart to new people and new experiences, and she’s realizing that there’s more to learn about love than she ever thought possible…
Fangirl is a book I actually heard about several years ago through the cover designer, whose work I followed. (Noelle Stevenson, btw, who is now the showrunner of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which you should also all check out) I have been hemming and hawing over buying it ever since then – could I justify buying a book I didn’t really know all that much about just because I really liked the cover artist? I was vaguely interested in the subject matter – myself having dabbled more than a little in fandom – but I shied away from it because it felt… too much.
I struggled to settle into the narrative a bit. Some of this may have been the fact that Cath seemed so incapable of considering anything other than her fandom. Even when I was at my Peak Nerd, I multi-fandomed so my flavours of nerdery were more… tempered. I tended to keep to either smaller fandoms (long-over animé series; the Marauders section of Harry Potter; Doctor Who when it had only just relaunched and was full of old-Who fans who seemed both pleased and slightly baffled by the sudden influx of teenagers), and I’ve always had more of a thing for rare pairs than the popular ships so managed to avoid 90% of ship wars and generally had a pleasant and quiet fandom experience.
But something about Cath’s experience jarred with me. Whether it was acute second-hand embarrassment for her, and also by extension for teenage me, or whether it was just that Cath’s experience rang a little false I’m not entirely sure. At 18, Cath is an established Big Name Fan (fandom famous), with a nearly-completed epic fic. In my experience (although again, bearing in mind my fandom associations which tended to attract an older demographic anyway), I never came across a BNF who was a teenager. We are given to believe that Cath is an exceptional writer, and I think she would have to be, because the fics which always seemed to reach the most people and become fandom classics were the ones that had a level of nuance and life experience which… is uncommon in younger fandom writers. (Or they were insane crack fics which became giant fandom in-jokes in their own right, Very Secret Diaries of the Fellowship of the Ring, I’m looking at you.) Then we are given the consideration that Cath is a socially-awkward, terminally introverted character. What life experience is there to build on from that, how is she getting the nuance that makes her fics so exceptional? And then we hear that she was at one point writing a chapter a day and had been for two years (how long is this fic?), which is… improbable? And then we hear that she intends to make her ship, Baz and Simon (thinly-veiled Drarry from a thinly-veiled Harry Potter stand-in – and Baz is not a sexy name), waltz around the castle. That bit does ring true to my fandom experience of teen fanfic writers, but it doesn’t fit with many of the better fics I have read.
I think that perhaps my issue with the book was trying to translate Cath’s fandom experience into something I could recognise. I enjoyed seeing her personal growth outside of fandom, and the relationships she developed, and the way she re-evaluated her relationships with her sister, her father, and her friends, but I just really struggled to get my head around her. What modern University doesn’t have some kind of nerd group that she would be able to join? Based on this book, the alternatives are excessive drinking, or sitting in and writing fanfic when you should be doing your assignments. My old University had an animé society, a gaming society, and a Sci-Fi and Fantasy society when I joined in 2006, all which seem like they would have fallen into Cath’s interest bracket. It now has a creative writing society, a book club, an e-sports society, and a crafting society. Whilst I understand she is supposed to be mad at her sister and sulking about their ‘split’, it feels like the book doesn’t recognise the need for nerds to seek out other nerds – and how easy this is to do at University. Instead, Cath is encouraged to tone down her fandom, and to move away from it.
I realise there is some hypocrisy in my critiques of the novel – on the one hand, Cath’s fandom is too much, on the other she should be making more opportunities to embrace it. I think what it boils down to for me is that she never really seems to learn how to embrace her fandom in a healthy way. There’s no balance. Instead of writing for her writing class, she puts it off all year and writes fanfic. Literally until the eleventh hour. She socialises with her roommate, her roommate’s ex-boyfriend, and one guy from her writing class. That’s it. She uses her fanfic writing as an escape from reality – and this is heavily emphasised – and that is fine, particularly as she clearly has some issues and bottled up trauma to work through. Her psychological development is mirrored with her sister’s, as Wren chooses a different kind of self-destructive behaviour to work through her issues. But even when Cath is called out for being too obsessive over her fandom, for not focusing on what she needs to be focusing on, she’s always forgiven instantly. The fic is constantly there in the story, and her relationship with it is clearly unhealthy as her schoolwork and social life and personal growth take a back seat to getting this story finished, but that is never resolved really.
We do see Cath grow, but the real turning point for her seems to come at the end of the novel, and much of it seems to come from having ‘regained’ her sister and returned to something of a status quo. She finishes her fic, but the final book in her series comes out and she’s there for the midnight opening, full fandom cred still in tact. But she’s there with her boyfriend, so I guess that’s growth?
There are a lot of little details I liked about this – the romantic lead isn’t a heartthrob, the discussion about different kinds of intelligence, the representation of mental health difficulties and the impact it can have on families, the recognition that not all mothers are maternal. Rowell is clearly a very skilled writer, and her characters are well-defined. I wonder if I might prefer her other novel, Eleanor and Park.
I am just so conflicted about this book. I think I enjoyed it, and I probably would read it again, maybe? But I think for me it leaned too hard on some aspects and not hard enough on others. I am also not sure how I feel that Cath’s epic fic, Carry On, has been written and released as a follow-up novel by the author, and the sequel to it, Wayward Son (which Cath has presumably also written? So clearly not taking a fandom break) is due out in September 2019. I find that… strangely masturbatory? Which again is a redundant statement because the whole essence of fanfic is self-indulgence, but when the author is writing and publishing fanfic for the book series which doesn’t exist except in her own fictional universe, it’s fanfic of a novel inside her own novel, I think my brain gets folded up on itself uncomfortably trying to work out the twists on that.
I would be curious to know what other people with fandom experiences thought about it – please let me know!
- A book which uses fandom experience as a character trait and provides some insight into it, but perhaps not with the nuance or consideration I would have liked, or an exploration of healthy attitudes towards fandom.
- It also doesn’t really ring true for me in light of my own fandom experience, but fandom is such a personal thing it may be more relatable to other readers.
- I did enjoy seeing the characters develop in themselves away from the fandom, but at the same time the continual returning to the fandom with no change felt almost like a step backwards each time.
Rating: 3/5 – Every time I try and think about how I liked this book I end up going in circles. It’s a good book, it’s well-written, I think it’s just a subject matter that is very loaded for me personally.