A YA Retrospective of ‘Fangirl’ by Rainbow Rowell

I can’t remember buying this book, but I can remember sitting with it for the first time. The pastel green cover in my hands, drinking a strawberry and cream Frappuccino in the Starbucks opposite Waterstones. I knew it was going to be good.

It was called Fangirl and was about a girl who escapes into fiction rather than facing the world. I could relate to that. I was thirteen years old, and school had just started again. I had just had the most amazing summer, and, I didn’t know it then, but year 9 was about to be a big year for me.

I loved it, instantly. I still do. The glue has worn out and that pastel green cover comes away from the pages, so I now own a limited-edition hardcover too. The original is covered in annotations and underlines and love hearts, so that one is still my favourite.

Despite being older than every main character now, despite having gone through what Cath went through (going to University), I can still read it and fall right back into its comfort. It is what I cling to whenever I get bad news, whenever I am uncertain, whenever I start something new.

Pre-university Beth thought her life would be exactly like Cather Avery’s. University-era Beth found comfort in the clearly universal experience of feeling like everyone in the world is having fun at university other than you. This bit of description hit me hard when I re-read the book as I started university: “It had sounded like the whole campus was up partying. Cath felt under siege in her empty dorm room. Shouting. Laughing. Music. All of it coming from every direction.” Fangirl got me through my first week, and, when my parents came up to visit me in my third, I asked them to bring Carry On, too, a sort-of sequel to Fangirl, hoping to seek more comfort from the two side characters Simon and Baz.

I can break down my love for this book into three main sections.

The Love Story

Who couldn’t fall for Levi?

If you want to read a book with a heart-warming, but realistic, first love, Fangirl is certainly for you. The thought that a boy like Levi would be waiting for me at university got me through my secondary school years and the lack of romance that filled them. Especially with Cath being so much like me.

I suppose now is probably a good time to give you a synopsis of the story.

Fangirl follows Cath, who is starting college without her twin sister, Wren. She is shy and anxious, and, above all, obsessed with fanfiction. She’s a successful fic writer, and the one thing she is looking forward to about college is her creative writing class.

As soon as she moves in, Cath meets Levi. Tall, loose, and constantly smiling, Cath panics. Levi represents everything she was scared to do without her sister: getting to know new, weird, people. She doesn’t want to be friends with Levi, much more content to be the acquaintance of her roommate and Levi’s maybe ex, Reagan. But Levi is constantly around. His eagerness to get to know Cath, to listen to her as she reads aloud her fanfiction, is too endearing to be ignored. The romance sparks.

This book has shaped what I expect from a love story: slow-burn, only small amounts of miscommunication, patience, and realism. This first love is painstakingly real in how it isn’t miraculous and magical. Cath and Levi have problems, but they work through those problems. It certainly is worth the journey.  

The Other Love Story  

Fangirl has something that I have come to love in fiction. Extremely meta additional content. Whether it’s the new Gossip Girl creating social media platforms for its characters (something I believe they stole from the hugely popular Norwegian show Skam and its many variations), or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus’ use of second person sections; if you can go the extra mile to create depth in your story, I will probably fall for it hard.

So, some of my favourite parts of Fangirl are the snippets of fanfiction Cath writes that appear in between chapters. Rainbow somehow manages to get you and keep you invested in fictional fictional characters, which is important, because the driving force of tension develops as Cath rushes to finish her version of the story before the author releases the final book.

Let me break this down for the uninitiated. In the world of Fangirl, there exists an 8-book series about a Mage called Simon Snow and his roommate/enemy Baz Pitch. Cath is an extremely successful fanfiction writer, particularly for the fics she writes where Simon and Baz are in love. Yes, it is basically Harry Potter/Draco Malfoy fanfiction. Yes, it is better.

So much better that many of the fans of the books Rainbow went on to write about Simon and Baz haven’t even read Fangirl (which, to me, is astonishing) (if you’re one of those readers, read Fangirl now, there is so much more content in there for you to discover).

But I’m not here to talk about Carry On, the book Rainbow wrote about Simon and Baz. So, let’s continue.  

Cath and Writing

Cath’s love for writing fanfiction was never something I could relate too. But I could relate to the desire to be a writer, to have it feel like it’s the only thing you can do, to having the words drip from your fingers, rushing like a waterfall when it feels like everything is working. Or, to have high hopes for a creative writing class only to be slightly crushed by it.

And then, in 2019, I went to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Suddenly, as I was about to start my second year of university, I was more like Cath than I had ever been. Because here I was, presented with two characters who are roommates, who should be enemies, who, I believed, were clearly in love with each other. But the text didn’t allow them to be.

And I, like Cath, had to fix that. I kidnapped Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy and raised them as my own.

(In a grand, full circle moment, I wrote almost 40k words of a modern Alternate Universe fic where Albus and Scorpius are actors playing Simon and Baz in the filmed adaptation of the Simon Snow books. It was complicated. I forgot for a chapter that Albus is related to Victoire Weasley and cast her as Simon’s love-interest Agatha. I suspect this is now incomprehensible for a lot of readers. I’ll move on.)

Just take that as me finally understanding why Cath did what she did, because I was doing it too. I felt like I was walking around with this massive secret. Both afraid that my friends would find out I was writing fic and desperately wanting to talk about it. Like Cath, I was taking a creative writing course that year, and I was petrified that we would have to share the most recent thing we’ve written. I am a horrible liar, so I would have had to admit to writing fic. The thought thrilled me, both positively and negatively.

I stopped writing fic after Christmas. I lost the love for Cursed Child, and for JK Rowling in general, but I don’t regret doing it. I wrote more words in those 4 months than I ever had before, and it reminded me why writing is good, and why I wanted to do it. I self-indulgently read my own fanfiction more frequently than I probably should. I love returning to that mindset. It was wonderful to feel so connected to Cath, and to Simon and Baz.

The End

I most recently read Fangirl a month ago now. I had just been told to self-isolate because I had come into contact with someone with Covid, and it meant that I couldn’t go to my graduation. In a desperate need to escape my own thoughts and tears, I took Fangirl off my shelf and dived back in. I read over half the book in one sitting, grateful for how easy, and how comforting, it is to read. Especially now, after having gone through so much with Cath and Levi at my side.

Fangirl was too hard to read in September of 2020, with my university experience ending. In September of 2019 and 2018, it stopped my tears when I hated being away from home as I slept in rooms that didn’t feel like mine yet. Throughout 2014 to 2018, it was a comfort, and a hope of what was to come later in my life. In 2013, it was simply magic.

So, yes, this is a glowing review. To me, tinged with nostalgia, this book doesn’t have any faults. Or, it has one: I wish it never ended.

You can purchase Fangirl at Waterstones and Amazon.

Bethany Sherrott is an English graduate, bookworm, and self-proclaimed nerd, who reviews books on multiple platforms. Find her on Instagram @AWordAboutWords and read more of her work on her book reviews blog.

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Published by bethanysherrott

My name is Bethany and I am a bookstagrammer/book reviewer/all round book lover!

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