Standalone, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013, 438 pgs.
Cath can’t help but worry about her first year at college. The whole experience seems explicitly designed to involve everything she can’t deal with. There’s the classes, which she knows are going to be harder than the ones at high school. There’s the worry about how her dad is going to handle living alone in their big house. There’s the fact that she’ll be far from home, away from everything she knows and every comforting thing she’s ever built up for herself. And worst of all there’s having to live with a complete stranger, since her twin and partner-in-crime Wren has apparently decided they need to split up and meet new people. Because Cath knows she’s a little weird. She would rather stay at home and read than party, she’s far happier trying to deconstruct a fictional world than trying to figure out her own life, and to top it off she’s one of those fanfic people. Really, she’s far more comfortable interacting with the other weirdos online than with the swathes of normal, judgmental people that college has to offer. And at one point Wren would have happily stayed back with her and Simon and Baz, their favorite characters. An increasingly distant Wren seems more than happy to leave everything that used to make the two of them happy behind and move on with her life, though. Unfortunately for Cath, she can’t seem to do the same.
Some spoilers in this review
Well, I did walk into this knowing it was going to be the song of my people. I can’t say I didn’t get what I thought I was going to here. I may have gotten a little more than that, actually.
I’ll start out by saying that I think this was a technically good book. The characters start out pretty complex and have some good development as they go through the novel. They’re all likeable and interesting, as well, so the plot stays compelling in spite of the fact that it’s mostly about the lead’s internal journey. And the story works in what I think are some important life lessons, to boot.
I’ll also say, though, that this book was so geared to be something made for me that it’s hard for me to take any sort of technical quality into consideration. I was always going to love this novel, because, like I said, it’s the song of my people. On more levels than I expected, really.
There are two main parts to that, and I’d like to discuss each of them separately, because wow, was I not expecting this book to pull at my heartstrings like it did.
So, the more obvious first. And by “more obvious” I mean what I expected walking in, which I did admittedly get. This is a novel titled Fangirl, where our lead is a megafandom BNF who is so shy in real life that she can barely interact with other people. As much as you’ll never know how much joy it brought me to write that sentence, you probably see where I’m going with this. I expected teenage awkwardness and the hijinks that come with it. I expected rom-commy character interaction, because it’s also abundantly clear this is a romance. Most of all, I expected a metric ton of nerdy references to eat my little geek heart out over.
I can’t say the book failed to deliver on any of those fronts, either. There definitely are funny moments here, and I even liked the romance, which is unusual for me. I’m typically uninterested in mutual support and care in fiction, but Cath and Levi were so down to earth and adorable that it was hard not to like them together. The portrayal here is less of star-crossed lovers who are perfect together and more of two people who are working very hard to grow into each other, and I did appreciate that.
And the nerdery, which was the main draw for me, was absolutely spot on. Either Rowell was actually an active part of the Harry Potter fandom during its heyday, or she did her research impeccably, because I was having about as many nostalgia flashbacks during this as I did while reading Soulbound, if for entirely different reasons.
Simon and Baz are so entirely Harry and Draco that I actually found it a little awkward when it was made clear that Harry Potter also exists in this universe. The little details are perfect as well, leather pants, vampires, snark and all. The snippets of Cath’s fanfic that Rowell scatters in really do capture the tone of being in fandom; I had to stop reading for a moment to writhe with happiness when I got to the one that was an actual “five times” fic.
I expected to relate to all of the fun things about this novel, though. I didn’t expect the other side at all.
Because intertwined with all the goofy fandom clichés is an actually somewhat painful story about learning to work around your own mental illness, and about learning to overcome the soul-crushing insecurity caused by it. One of the first notes I made about this book was that, within a couple of pages, I already felt a deep, heartfelt connection with Cath because we opened with her being nervous about college as a new situation with new people. And this connection continued as the novel went on, and it became more clear that what was happening with Cath was more an actual anxiety issue than just shyness. Rowell is as careful with her details on this front as she is on the fannish side of things.
Cath barely talks to her new roommate for the first couple of weeks she’s in class, because she’s afraid of looking crazy. She lives on granola bars for probably the first third of the novel because she’s too scared to brave the cafeteria. She has an internal scale for the intensity of what she’s feeling, and “protocols” to handle each level, because it’s the only way she can even begin to control what’s going on with her. And, even with that, small changes to her routine or comfort zone can really shake her, leave her unable to deal with things. Even small setbacks can do the same; she nearly flunks out of a class because she assumes her writing’s not good enough to even try at the final assignment.
And she throws herself into fandom to avoid having to deal with her real life.
It’s not only Cath, either. It’s never exactly spelled out, but it’s pretty clear her dad is bipolar. He has episodes where he works maniacally and goes days without eating or sleeping. And he doesn’t deal completely well without his two daughters there to keep him grounded. Her twin sister, Wren, has a breakdown at the end of their first semester where she nearly drinks herself to death because she’s trying so hard to be the stable, normal, cool one.
These aren’t the stereotypical shy loner, kooky parent, or party girl, and the problems their traits bring them aren’t flat half-issues. This is an honest, detailed portrayal of mental illness, warts and all, Of the way it can pick at you, even when things aren’t going badly. Of the way it runs in families, though the expression of it is different for every person. Of the way you sometimes have the choice between letting the pain drag you all down or using the understanding you have to try to lift each other up.
And if you take bits and pieces from all three characters, you have something that uncannily resembles my story. I’ve done a lot of those things. I still do some of them. I was not expecting the song of my people to sting quite so much. It’s hard to really be critical when you have something like that handed to you on page. I imprinted on the book early on, and it never left.
There are other subplots that I haven’t mentioned here, given. There’s the romance, and Cath learning to stand up for herself, and some stuff with the girls’ estranged mother. This is a coming of age novel on pretty much all fronts, and far from all of it was a direct one to one for me.
Still, with the overwhelming amount of things I related heavily to, analysis was never in the cards, here. I can’t say how this book will read to someone who has none of those experiences. For myself, though, I have to thank Ms. Rowell. We read for two reasons: to be taken out of ourselves or to see our own reflection. And I can’t say I’ve ever had a better example of the latter.