Pardon me if I’m a little weepy; I just finished reading Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. It’s a good weepy, the kind that lets you know that you’re not ready to let go of that amazing book just yet. Eleanor and Park, Rowell’s last book, was perfectly sparse. Each word fit precisely into place. Fangirl is just as perfect, but longer and meatier. It’s the kind of book that you disappear into while you’re reading.
Fangirl opens with Cath (full name: Cather) leaving for college and hurt that her twin sister doesn’t want to room with together. She’s not all that excited about college, either, or anything that doesn’t involve writing fan fiction about the Simon Snow books—a Harry Potter-esque series of children’s fantasy novels. Simon has always been her escape—from her mother leaving, from her father’s mental health issues, from engaging with the world in a way that might leave her vulnerable. But her blunt roommate and her roommate’s handsome and friendly boyfriend won’t let her retreat completely. And a good-looking boy in her fiction writing class is tempting her into writing about something other than Simon. Is she ready to start her real life if it means letting go of Simon?
In Cath’s slash (i.e., M/M romance) version of the Simon Snow world, Simon falls for Baz, his antagonist and roommate. Cath knows people will think this is weird—even weirder than writing non-slash fanfic. But the stories Cath creates are lovely and meaningful. She has tens of thousands of fans clamoring for each installment of Carry On, the story she has been working on for two years. Rowell weaves excerpts from Cath’s fics, and from the actual Simon Snow books, throughout Cath’s story. Both are beautifully written.
The published Snow works perfectly capture the reserved yet playful authority of a British children’s fantasy narrator. The glimpses inside the books clarify why Snow is so important to Cath. He, too, was abandoned by a parent, only he gets to go to a magical school, and the evils in his life are tangible and can be fought with swords.
Cath’s version adds a wry flavor to the dialogue and a painfully lovely emotional openness to the characters. Her scenes between Baz and Simon echo her desire for the kind of connection that she is too afraid to risk in real life. Their presence in the narrative plays with the events in her life, reshaping and amplifying them, much in the way that fanfic interacts with its source works.
Although Cath loves writing fic because she loves disappearing into Simon’s world, Rowell never reduces fanfic to a childish pastime. Fanfic is an important part of who Cath is. Her fear of creating her own worlds—in writing and in life—is a separate issue. She may use fic as an easy escape from her problems, but it eventually becomes the tool she uses to build her relationships and, finally, a piece of writing with characters of her very own.
In writing about Cath, who wants to live inside her favorite story, Rowell has created a fictional world that I want to jump inside of like a chalk drawing, wrap around me like a blanket, or just hug it and hug it and never let go. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to reread Fangirl. Maybe I’ll even write a fic…