Reviewed in the United States on December 9, 2013
For the second time in as many months, Rainbow Rowell has kept me up way too late, totally sucked into and thoroughy transported by one of her books (the last one was Eleanor & Park). And for the second time, I have been totally in love with the story ... until I got to the end, at which point I thought, "Really? I stayed up until 3:00 AM for this?" With Eleanor & Park, I dismissed my disappointment as shallowness and decided I'd conditioned myself to expect a Happy Ever After in everything, even though some stories don't end happily. Eleanor & Park's ending wasn't happy, but it fit the story, and though I can't say I liked it, I respected what I think Ms. Rowell was trying to do. This time, I'm not as sanguine. This time, I feel a little cheated.
But more on the ending later. I don't want to give the impression that I didn't like Fangirl, because I did. Up until the last 40 pages, I really, really did. It started a little slowly for me. For the first 70 pages or so, I felt like an outsider looking in, not really hooked yet -- probably because I'm almost twenty years past my own college freshman experience, and because the fanfic phenomenon didn't really exist when I came of age, or at least not on the scale it exists now. (Fangirl's protagonist, Cather Avery, is a painfully shy young woman who writes a tremendously popular Harry Potter-esque fan fiction.) I know that that fan fiction is a big thing, but I've always been very skeptical of it, probably because my experience has been limited to Fifty Shades of Grey, which everyone knows started as fan fic of Twilight (and which, in my opinion, took something that was bad to begin with and made it about a zillion times more horrifying). At any rate, I approached Cath's hobby (and thus, this book) with trepidation, because my first instinct was (and is) that writing fan fic is kinda weird. -And you know what? It's totally okay that I think that. Cath knows it's kinda weird. Almost everyone in the story--from her snarky roommate, to her judgey creative writing professor, to her seeking-individuality-at-the-bottom-of-a-tequila-bottle identical twin sister--also thinks it's kinda weird.
The narrative is scattered with excerpts from Cath's fan fic, as well as excerpts from Simon Snow, the Harry Potter-like series upon which it is based, and to be honest, even as I got over my skepticism about Cath's writing I still found myself skimming these sections. They are critical to the structure of the story, so it's not as if Rowell could have left them out, but I found them distracting because we only know enough about Simon Snow to know it's like Harry Potter (boy wizard at magic school fighting epic evil), but different, and not enough to actually follow the Simon Snow mythology or care much about the characters (who the hell is Penelope?).
Once again, I have veered off into what I didn't like about this book, and I really don't mean to keep doing that. (I blame the 2.5 hours of sleep I got after staying up most of the night reading.) Here's what I love: all of the characters are so real and so perfectly... imperfect. I am so tired of the special snowflake female protagonists that populate New Adult fiction, these falsely-modest beautiful girls who effortlessly win over these equally one-dimensional, paragon-of-perfection type guys, and every single other character is just wallpaper as the couple fall in love and go about their business.
Cath isn't like that: she's skirting the fine line between social anxiety and mental illness. She is introverted and painfully shy, and she knows (because her father is bipolar) that it wouldn't take much to push her over the line into crazytown. I love that she is both terrified of becoming crazy and sometimes unwilling or unable to make choices to move herself off that path, at least not without help from others (her sister, her dad, her roommate, her writing professor, her boyfriend). I love that she gets help from others, and not just from her boyfriend.
Levi, the boyfriend, isn't a paragon of perfection either. He has a receding hairline and a soft chin. He doesn't wash his hair as often as he ought. He can't read. He very nearly dooms their relationship right out of the starting gate by making a boneheaded, but totally normal, *boy* mistake. He is such a nice guy, a really lovely human being, but he isn't a Gary Stu because his good manners and sunny disposition are balanced out by real, human, imperfections.
I love Cath and Levi together. As an introvert myself, I totally understood Cath's befuddlement at the way Levi goes around smiling and being nice to people "as if it doesn't cost him anything," and his corresponding bafflement that *of course* it doesn't cost him anything. At one point, Cath describes Levi as a golden retriever, and I laughed out loud, because one of my best friends is an extrovert and describes herself the same way. In addition to this good friend, my mother and my sister are both extroverts, and when I am in social situations with them, I totally feel as if we are from alternate universes, as if we have nothing in common, as if it makes no sense that we could be friends or share the same DNA. Cath's sense of otherness, of incompatibility, totally resonates with me.
I love that the supporting characters are not just background. Cath's relationships with her family -- her twin sister, her mentally-ill father, her mostly-absent mother -- are fully developed and full of dramatic conflict and resolution even as they are secondary to the developing romance between Cath and Levi. Cath's roommate is snarky and sharp tongued, and a lesser writer could easily have turned her into a stock character whose sole purpose is comic relief, but Reagan, too, is a fully drawn person with her own history and feelings and motivations. She's not solely there to draw Cath out of her introverted shell (though she does an admirable job of it).
Rowell has an amazing gift for dialogue. Her characters are funny and sharp and snarky and poignant and honest, and their conversations move the story along and make the reader feel All The Feelz, and yet the dialogue is always believable, sounding like things real people would actually say in similar situations.
But the ending! *Mournful sigh.* I'm not even sure I can articulate what I found so disappointing. It's not that it leaves loose ends hanging: it doesn't. It's not that it isn't "happy": it is, at least happy for now, which is totally appropriate in a YA/NA romance -- how many of us settle down with our first loves, after all? It just felt really abrupt, and out of sync with the pace of the rest of the book. Fangirl is 436 "pages" long on my Kindle (not including Acknowledgments, etc.). The dramatic conflict is still building up until page 422, which leaves approximately 14 pages to wrap everything up. Roughly half of those fourteen pages are excerpts which, as I mentioned above, I found distracting even as I recognize the point of including them in the story. So, yes, the ending felt sudden, underdeveloped, and too neat and orderly. I subtracted a whole star from my rating just because of that let down. Harsh? Maybe, but is there anything worse than an extremely disappointing ending to a book you love as much as I loved this one?