Undeniably, I am an extroverted person. I love to talk and the center of attention is where I crave to be. With this in mind, I didn’t expect to relate so much to Cath, the main character in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. To say I loved this book would be a gross understatement.
Cath is introverted and a bit socially awkward, a popular fanfiction writer, and a freshman in college alongside her twin sister Wren. Much to Cath’s dismay, Wren doesn’t want to room together and is looking for a path of her own. Cath starts off college by simply going through the motions: attend class, return to room to write fanfic, repeat. Because of her anxiety, she doesn’t even attempt to find the food hall, and survives off of cereal bars in her room. But what Cath does have is a grumpy upperclassman roommate that eventually takes her under her wing, helping Cath open up immensely. Fangirl is a story about Cath’s freshman year of college, but it is also so much more than that.
I don’t want to give too much about the book away, I think it is better left to be discovered. So in lieu of talking about any plot points, I’m going to touch on my favorite aspects of the book.
Rainbow Rowell knows what we’re all thinking
This was my first taste of Rowell’s work, and I was not disappointed. The pacing was sharp and kept me up reading this book in one sitting. My husband came downstairs at 4:30 a.m. when he was getting ready for work, and just shook his head at me while I sniffled and smiled on the couch.
Rowell’s style also gets to the heart of the matter in a funny and insightful way. She paints characters that are so true to life, multidimensional and rational. Never once did the author’s hand feel forced. Cath, Wren and all the others were so believable, with motivations that matched actions. And the dialogue? The best way I can describe it is smart. It was biting in the best sense and reminded me a bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you take a look at the top Fangirl quotes on Goodreads, they are all pieces of dialogue. That’s a pretty good sign that the author knows how to write convincing characters.
“Just … isn’t giving up allowed sometimes? Isn’t it okay to say, ‘This really hurts, so I’m going to stop trying’?”
“It sets a dangerous precedent.”
“For avoiding pain?”
“For avoiding life.”
“You’ve read the books?”
“I’ve seen the movies.”
Cath rolled her eyes so hard, it hurt. (Actually.) (Maybe because she was still on the edge of tears. On the edge, period.) “So you haven’t read the books.”
“I’m not really a book person.”
“That might be the most idiotic thing you’ve ever said to me”
“No,’ Cath said, ‘seriously. Look at you. You’ve got your shit together, you’re not scared of anything. I’m scared of everything. And I’m crazy. Like maybe you think I’m a little crazy, but I only ever let people see the tip of my crazy iceberg. Underneath this veneer of slightly crazy and socially inept, I’m a complete disaster.”
Cath is entirely relatable
Like I said at the beginning, I’m not really like Cath. At surface value anyways. Because as I wrapped myself further into the story, I felt connected to Cath. She was like an exaggeration of what we all feel like sometimes — anxious, uncertain and scared of reaching out.
A few weeks after reading this book I was on a work conference. I didn’t go with anyone who was my level, and didn’t feel like hanging out with my boss every night (I think most of you could sympathize with that). After the work part of the day was over, I went back to my room. My choice for dinner was to go downstairs alone for a large buffet-like setting and try to find people that I knew. Instead, I stayed in my room, eating a granola bar. I was having a very Cath moment. And as I ate, I remembered a scene from the book where Cath eats in the bathroom. Weeks after reading, the book was still sticking with me, and I had to admit, no matter how extroverted you think you are, we all have those moments of self-doubt where we worry what people will think about us and are just too uncomfortable to make face and brave it on our own.
“She grabbed a protein bar and walked out of the room, thinking she’d just take a quick walk down the hall to clear her head.
But the hallway was practically a meet-and-greet. Every door was propped open but theirs. Girls were milling around, talking and laughing, The whole floor smelled like burnt microwave popcorn. Cath slipped into the bathroom and sat in one of the stalls, unwrapping her protein bar and letting nervous tears dribble down her cheeks.”
This is pretty much real life
I haven’t read any other books set in college, but Rowell really nailed the atmosphere. My freshman experience was nothing like Cath’s, maybe closer to Wren’s although I never <highlight to see spoiler> ended up in the hospital due to alcohol poisoning, but it felt so familiar. I also really enjoyed that the story takes place in Nebraska, and maybe that is why it struck a cord. As a Midwesterner, it made me really happy to see a character described as wearing a Carhartt jacket. Even if I’m not into country.
“Oh.” Courtney stuck out her bottom lip. “Too bad. He was super cute. Farm boy.”
“How could you tell he’s a farm boy?” Cath asked.
“Carhartt,” they both said at once.
“His coat,” Wren explained. “All the farm boys wear Carhartt.”
“Trust your sister on this.” Courtney giggled. “She knows all the farm boys.”
The family dynamic was also interesting. Rowell touches on issues such as mental health, abandonment and sibling bonds with a deft hand. Like her characters, these topics were layered and she really explored them without overtly saying what is right and wrong. That is one of my biggest measures for a book: Does the author let the reader draw their own conclusions, or does the author impose their thoughts on them? I’m a big fan of the reader-response theory of literary criticism, in which the reader imparts their experiences on the work and its meaning is only derived from their interpretation.
My sole (miniscule) criticism
There was only one issue for me in this whole book. Rowell weaves in some scenes from Cath’s fanfiction as well as the series she is going off of: Simon Snow. While I loved this detail ( I want to read both her fanfic and the Simon Snow books), Harry Potter is mentioned in the story itself. Simon Snow could not exist in the same world as Harry Potter, they are essentially the same books — that is the point. I get that it was a nod to that whole universe that sparked Fangirl, but it didn’t gel for me. There can be only one!
So, did you read Fangirl? Did you find Cath as relatable as I did? Have you read any other books that are set in college that handle it as well? Let me know in the comments!