Rainbow Rowell is fast becoming one of my favorite authors, right up there with Melina Marchetta, Markus Zusak and John Green–to list a few off the top of my head. Like them, she creates characters that have heart and humor and frailty. The dialogues fairly crackle with wit and the settings are vividly imagined. But by far, what gets me every time as a reader, are the relationships–those messy, emotional, intense connections that bind the characters and make them memorable. It’s those snarky exchanges between siblings, the misunderstood intentions of a parent, the rock solid empathy of a best friend and the juddering beginnings of a new romance that, in the best hands, make a story sing.
That said, I should be writing this about Rowell’s first YA novel, Eleanor and Park, which has already been heaped with mountains of praise (by John Green, no less) and a Horn Book award to boot. I loved it. I loved the working-class Nebraska setting. I loved Park’s ethnic mix and the fact that his parents were still visibly in love. I loved how Eleanor endured an abusive stepfather as she tried to protect the ones she loved. And, of course, I loved how Eleanor and Park slowly, awkwardly fell in love with each other. I loved (okay, that’s the last time I’m using that word) all the little details Rainbow Rowell put into Eleanor and Park that made it richer and unique and while I certainly recommend Fangirl, it’s with a smidge less enthusiasm.
We’re back in Nebraska and there are plenty of relationships to explore in Fangirl: between twin sisters, roommates, parents, and yes, boyfriends, both in our main character’s life and in her fanfiction writing. Cath plays shy second fiddle to her outgoing twin, Wren, except when it comes to writing her popular Simon Snow fanfiction, based on the characters of a magical book series which sounds, not surprisingly, like a thinly veiled Harry Potter. At its best, Fangirl reveals Cath to be a complex, multilayered character who’s smart and capable and especially attuned to the nuances of her manic depressive dad, while also feeling overwhelmed herself as a college freshman away from home.
What was more “meh” for me was the fanfiction itself. Each chapter began with an excerpt from either Cath’s online postings or passages from the Simon Snow books. While the whole “book within a book” concept didn’t play well with me, other readers may like it and it admittedly wasn’t enough to dissuade me from enjoying this novel and Rainbow Rowell’s spot-on interpretation of campus life.