Fan Fiction: A spoiler-free review of Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl

Is there room for romance in the life of a  Fangirl,  when she's too busy writing someone else's love story?  (Cover photo from MacMillan USA)

Is there room for romance in the life of a Fangirl, when she’s too busy writing someone else’s love story? (Cover photo from MacMillan USA)

Coming of age narratives are a dime a dozen.

As long as there are tweens and teens fumbling their way towards (young) adulthood, there will always be a surfeit of stories chronicling such journeys. But when a fictional hero grows up alongside its audience, you have the makings of something pretty special.

In Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell transports us back to a definitive moment in pop culture history: the months leading to the end of a beloved book series. In this universe, it’s the Simon Snow series, and Cather “Cath” Avery, the titular fangirl of our story is rushing to finish her epic, 8th year AU fanfiction before the midnight release of the final installment, Simon Snow and the Eighth Dance. All this, while navigating the emotional highs and lows of freshman year: growing apart from her twin sister (and former fanfiction collaborator), Wren; co-habiting with worldly roommates; and interacting with that most maddening of species, college boys.

Rowell is an easy writer to read. Her stories are fairly straightforward, but peopled by charming characters. Fangirl exhibits the stylistic flexibility displayed in her previous novels; Attachments employed email exchanges and Eleanor & Park dual narrations to build their stories, Fangirl is propped up by excerpts of Simon Snow fiction and fanfiction.

One need not be a fan to pick up the thinly veiled references to Harry Potter, but it does take a fangirl to recognize which Harry Potter actor Levi, Fangirl’s primary male character, is molded upon. And this is why mileage inevitably varies, with regards to the expectations and enjoyment of the novel. People active in fandoms will appreciate the occasional geeky shout-out (A clone! Beta reading! The Keep Calm meme!), and the overall positive if less nuanced portrayal of fan culture.But for casual enthusiasts, Fangirl may come across as a manifesto in defense of the fanfiction writer.

Chapter 11, in particular, summarizes arguments for and against fanfiction writing couched within a student-teacher consultation, after which Cath vents her frustrations to Levi, who is, surprisingly, supportive:

“[…]I can see why your professor wouldn’t want you to write a Simon Snow story—the class isn’t called Fanfiction-Writing—but I wouldn’t call it plagiarism. Is it illegal?”
“No. As long as you don’t try to sell it. GTL says she loves fanfiction—I mean, she loves the idea of it. She doesn’t actually read it[…]”
“[…]She just…she made me feel so stupid and…deviant.”
“Levi laughed again. ‘Do you really expect an elderly English professor to be down with gay Simon Snow fanfiction?’”

Cath’s self-identification as a fanfiction writer hinders her from developing her own narrative style, in the same way that her preoccupation with the Simon Snow fandom sometimes holds her back from making real-life friendships. And though she has deftly written and re-written romantic tropes, she finds herself unprepared to handle real-life romance. Cath is hellbent on giving her favorites and followers the happy ending they deserve, but has difficulty resolving the conflicts in her personal history.

Henry Jenkins, the granddaddy of fan culture studies, has famously stated that fanfiction is borne of equal parts fascination and frustration. If Fangirl readers are emotionally invested in seeing Cath through to her happy ending, then Rowell has told her story well. But if readers are compelled to write the ending themselves, then what she has created is a sensation. Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl is a novel of our times, but whether it stands the test of time remains to be seen.