Lauren's Reviews > Fangirl

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
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did not like it

You know, it’s been so long since I’ve disliked a book to the point of wanting to rant about it that I was starting to think I’d lost my cynical edge.

So I guess that’s one point in Fangirl’s favor.

And, you know, I liked Fangirl at first. It seemed that it was going to do something new with a protagonist that wasn’t the typical quirky teen girl.

Here’s where I stop and give my short review before delving into a much-needed rant: The protagonist, Cath, is a wholly passive character who gets exactly what she wants with no effort. There’s a dreamy love interest who makes Prince Charming look like an inconsiderate jerk. Anyone who disagrees with Cath is awful. This book very much needed an editor, because even Mary Sue is side eying Cath and saying, Really?

There are a lot of problems with this book.

But none of them are quiet so amusing and creepy as The Scene. The Scene reads like a rejected outtake from Fifty Shades of Grey (which I haven’t read, other than the super snarky blog posts of some of the more hilarious excerpts). That in and of itself is kind of appropriate, because Fangirl is about fan fiction and Fifty Shades of Grey is Twilight fan fiction with names changed.

I should preface my description of The Scene with some background: the protagonist, Cath, is emotionally stunted and almost assuredly has some mental issues. That part of the book works beautifully: Ms. Rowell’s ability to capture Cath’s social phobias was one of the strongest parts of the book. Cath is painfully shy and awkward, not in a cute way, but in a painfully brutal way that makes ordinary social interactions uncomfortable.

That part is good. No complaints there.

What makes the love angle weird is that Cath has the emotional maturity of a 13-year-old girl. In comparison, her dreamy boy toy reads as a guy in his mid- to late-twenties. Which leaves readers with a love scene between one character who reads like she’s in junior high and another character who reads like he’s pushing, at the very least, 30.

Eat your heart out, Nabokov.

The Scene itself is about our almost lovers attempting to overcome the girl’s phobias about a physical relationship (WHICH IS EXPECTED, BECAUSE SHE’S 13). To make her comfortable, her Prince Charming suggests she read a slash (homosexual) fan fiction she wrote about two characters from a best-selling children’s book series (the fictional versions of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy).

That’s right. The big romantic scene features a virginal straight girl reading her boyfriend a gay love story that she wrote about characters from a children’s book.

Look, I’m all about different strokes for different folks. As long as everyone’s consented and is capable of giving said consent, have whatever sort of kinky fun you want.


I doubt most readers would find the reverse of this sexy. If the guy said “hey, sweetheart, I have issues with getting my motor revving and the only way to fix that will be if you and I look at a bunch of naked photos I took of two straight girls pretending to be lesbians,” I think the reaction would be outrage rather than “OMG So Hot and Understanding.”

But – and this is really the major point – it wasn’t sexy. It was creepy and weird and not good creepy and weird. Cath has the maturity level of a preteen, which worked at the beginning of the book, but she doesn’t mature at all over the course of the novel. Having a twenty-something guy seduce her? No thanks.

Said scene isn’t helped by the fact that readers are given no understanding as to why Mr. Perfect is attracted to Cath. The only reason I could come up with is that Mr. Perfect is an odd dude who has a thing about the conquest of really virginal girls. No other reason is provided to explain his attraction. She’s just kind of there, and he’s just kind of there, and she’s mean to him, and she reads him her fan fiction and he loves it because, duh, she’s that amazing. She shows no interest in his life whatsoever and apparently that translates into him being crazy about her.

I mean, put like that, he sounds like he has some deep-seated issues of his own, what with being attracted to women who treat him horribly.

After taking a break to distance myself from feeling that I had just read something that veered way too close to erotica involving a minor, I started reading again.

I wish I hadn’t. Over the last part of the book, the plot, already not great, takes a nosedive. Cath is way too passive throughout the book, but her passivity reaches epic levels towards the end, and the take-away message seems to be that “coming of age” means everyone doing exactly what Cath wants and having everyone stay at the maturity level of junior high, only with sex.

I like coming-of-age books because, done well, they resonate and tap into a plethora of emotions. Even the middle-of-the-road stuff is engaging. But there is nothing here to warrant a “coming of age” tag. Nothing.

Cath doesn’t grow at all. The few times when she’s challenged, she never has to stand up for herself because someone else rides in to save the day. Sure, she has some family issues that suck, but who doesn’t? Plus, those family issues are within her comfort zone. She’s dealt with them for years, and she knows the drill. Whenever she’s challenged outside of her comfort zone, someone else swoops in and saves her. She’s never held accountable or forced to stand up for herself. It’s an anti-coming of age story.

Also, as someone who spent most of my freshman year of college hiding my childhood obsession with all things Star Trek, I hated how the “nerdy fangirl” was treated here. Granted, I never wrote Star Trek fan fiction and went to all of one convention, but the way Fangirl tackles the topic lacks any and all finesse. That Cath’s twin sister wanted to make a break from their shared childhood hobbies and interests doesn’t make her a bad person, although that's the lesson here. I know a lot of people who struggled with reconciling who they were in high school with who they wanted to be in college, whether it was science fiction and fantasy, religion, or hair color. That's normal! It’s part of growing up: trying on different personas and finding what works and what doesn’t and what is a childhood obsession and what may turn into a lifelong obsession. Given the blurb on the jacket flap, that’s what I expected here. Nope.

Frankly, a book from Cath’s sister’s perspective would have been loads more interesting than Cath’s trapped-in-the-past-and-everyone-else-is-awful-because-they-want-me-to-grow-up neuroses.

I was excited to see a book out there about fangirls that claimed to not treat them as pathetic punch lines. I guess I was sort of expecting something like Galaxy Quest (which, incidentally, was just voted a better Star Trek movie than some actual Star Trek movies – how amazing is that?).

But Fangirl is almost worse than outright mocking. I liked seeing a ‘traditional’ author opting for a sympathetic portrayal of fan fiction. I view fan fiction as the literary equivalent of fantasy football, and I’m baffled by the bizarre stigma attached to it. Spend fourteen hours every Sunday from September to January glued to a TV watching men give each permanent brain damage and that’s acceptable (says the sports fan). For that matter, go see the studio-sanctioned JJ Abrams fan fiction of Star Trek and that’s hip (which is awful, because Abrams’ version is nothing more than a crappy, dumb-as-nails Explode-o-rama in space). Those are fine. But a written-for-free story about Harry Potter? The horrors!

Honestly, Fangirl, rather than celebrating the creativity of fans, simply affirms the ‘weirdness’ of the hobby.

To that end, the fiction class subplot was awful. Just awful. I get it. Cath is a special snowflake who can do no wrong. Based on her experience writing fan fiction, she is a perfect author in need of no correction. She’s learned it all and should probably be teaching fiction writing, because she’s that amazing.

Sure she is.

The one thing I can usually rely on in novels is that writers know about writing and the world of writing (to be fair to Ms. Rowell: she does have a few good paragraphs about getting into the zone). It’s therefore weird to read a novel that features such an unrealistic portrayal of creative writing.

Working in a creative field entails dealing with criticism and rejection. Criticism is painful, but it is pain with a purpose. It takes people with raw talent and potential and forces them to improve.

I live in LA, and more than once have heard people use “So what’s the worst review you’ve ever had?” as an icebreaker. As a way to get to know someone, it sounds awful, but I’m amazed at how well it works. Because everyone has that story. Most have multiple stories, because it’s a normal part of the job. As a film professor once told me, none of his students would improve if he told them nothing more than “good job” and “you’re so talented.”

But that’s all Cath hears. Because Cath is perfect. Except her mean old professor doesn’t like fan fiction and doesn’t want Cath turning in fan fiction for assignments. How dare she. Because Cath is flawless. She needs no critiquing. Any piece of work she touches is brilliant.

In other words, the Simon Snow series is not the biggest fantasy featured in Fangirl. NOT recommended.
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Reading Progress

December 5, 2013 – Started Reading
December 6, 2013 – Finished Reading
January 5, 2014 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-23 of 23 (23 new)

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message 1: by Carol (new)

Carol WOW girl, major rant there!!! Hope your new year is going well!!!

Lauren At least I wasn't indifferent?

2014 is good so far. Hope it is for you too.

Molly This is a very well-reasoned critique.

Emma (Miss Print) I enjoyed Fangirl (not as much as Eleanor & Park but enjoyed) but I loved seeing your take on things. Because even as I liked parts you hated, the critique makes sense. Well done.

Jennifer While I actually liked Fangirl and disagree with some of your criticism, I can definitely see where you're coming from and see why you disliked it!

Regarding the professor's been awhile since I've read the book, but from what I recall, doesn't Cath learn that she needs to find her own voice in her own work, instead of just using someone else's work? (I mean, it doesn't stop her from doing fanfic, but she also learns she needs to do something beyond fanfic...) I could totally be misremembering this, though.

My biggest pet peeve with the book was actually the name. Cath. And her sister Wren. Because when her parents have unexpected twins, they're too lazy to pick out a new name, so they just split up the original choice (Catherine)! I thought that was ridiculous.

Lauren Thanks for the feedback. I also get a bit nervous about posting negative reviews.

Jennifer, I agree about Cath and Wren, but it also struck me as pretty normal for the YA genre. Quirky names do seem to be the norm.

Regarding the fiction subplot: From what I remember, the point about finding her voice was little more than lip service.

Gaby Robbins I was also disappointed with Fangirl. Having loved Attachments, I was expecting more from this and Eleanor and Park. I kept waiting for the ah-hah moment. The writing class plot-line, her sister, the fan fic & the love interest all left me unsatisfied. I still feel like something of the story was left off. Sad, I love her writing, but it just didn't do it for me. LOVED your review.

message 8: by Ash (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ash Oh, that scene was so terrible it hurt. And you're right, Cath was so damn passive and I wanted to like her because I kept thinking she'd find her voice or something but nope it didn't happen. Argh.

message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

Oh my god, "The Scene". It was so weird and I could not get behind it in any mindset.

Sɑnɗrɑ☼ Haha even though I loved the book, I loved reading your review. So hilarious and entertaining! It was really nice to get another perspective on Fangirl

Ashley It seemed to drag on without a plot for at least 150 pages. I'm thinking of abandoning

message 12: by Zoe (new) - rated it 4 stars

Zoe You have to at least acknowledge that as a whole, many English/literature teachers/professors are distrustful of fan fiction. even society is distrustful of it. so the fact that she took offence when her prof. didn't grade it as its own work can be fair assumption. having never taken a class like that one, I'm not an expert, but she wasnt claiming the characters were hers, she didn't intend to sell the work. it was just an assignment that she submitted in the best way she knew

Khaila Gurion This is a well-argued review but I don't agree with all the points you raised. I get it that creative writing is such a cruel mistress and we're not talking about criticisms yet. Considering Cath's age and as you've said, maturity age, that's such a young soul to slash and rip apart with such head-on criticisms. She needs to be nurtured well-enough first, until she has he's own guts to hold on for the real creative writing journey. If you know what I mean, the bumpy road of THE journey to create with your mentor watching on your shoulder etc, all that pressure! The intended audience of this book are those budding and aspiring writers who wants to write but really knows too little to call themselves writers yet but the point is, they must be encouraged to deliver their passion into something constructive. I think Cath took it too hard on herself, it's after all, her first critic, her CW prof. She was ahead of herself for taking advance classes in CW and her potentials and failures could be taken differently, either "No! Don't hurry growing up!" Or "Go out there and challenge yourself!" Could be both for Cath. The initial reaction of a young writer like Cath with criticism is defensive, which is only logical, she's too young and too underexposed with real writers and has no comparison with the writing process. There's little mentioned scene of Cath reading, she's always writing. Which is kinda bad.

Lauren Khaila, Thanks for your comment. I agree that there's no reason to destroy and lay waste to another person's writing in the name of criticism (although I'd argue that regardless of age). My point was more that we never saw the professor meaningfully critique Cath. Criticizing and supporting / encouraging are not mutually exclusive.

A personal tangent: Three of the best professors I ever had were also three of the hardest graders I encountered. Their grading scales were ruthless, they held their students to a standard infinitely higher than any other professor did in comparable classes, and they were also some of the most inspirational educators I've ever met. They made me better and they encouraged me, but they also held my feet to the fire while chanting "you can do better!"

In my original review, I mentioned a film professor. Some of his students include 18 year olds, and every student in his class is insanely talented (he teaches at one of the most competitive film programs in the country). I know a handful of his former students, and a lot of them will say they hated him when they took a class from him, but they are forever grateful to him because he made them better artists and filmmakers.

Cath's in a similar boat: she chose to take a class beyond her grade level. There's a reason a lot of colleges don't open creative writing classes up to freshmen and first-year students: because they are not yet ready to take the criticism that's a core to any of those classes. Part of a creative writing class is learning how to take criticism. If someone doesn't want that criticism, then he or she shouldn't take a writing class.

Criticism isn't fun. No one likes to be told what they wrote isn't perfect. But there's no point in a creative writing class if the only criticism allowed is "great job." That won't make writers, regardless of their skill level, any better.

On the flip side, there are levels of criticism and there's also a learning curve in learning how to criticism. I took a creative writing class in college to satisfy a writing requirement, and one thing that I didn't expect was that criticism is, in itself, an art. Having someone say "I didn't like this" isn't very useful, but having someone else say "This part didn't work for me because I didn't understand why this character did that action" is enormously helpful.

Like you, I didn't like that Cath didn't read. Being a writer - even a beginning one - means part of the job requirement is reading. But when a book ends with a character receiving a prestigious publication, well, then I expect said character to at least be able to take a little criticism to get there. As a reader, I want to see that character struggle and get knocked down a couple of times on the way to the big reward, because it makes that victory that much sweeter.

I hope that helps explain my review and my dislike of that section of the book.

message 15: by Dee (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dee This is an amazin review and it totally mirros my opinion. This was my first book by Rainbow and I felt like it was lacking something. Cath's phobias and inhibitions made me cringe. I know, I know there are people who feel like she does, but...I just looked at it as someone who didn't want to grow up, didn't know how to act without her twin and didn't even bother to try. (I mean, who eats granola bars for a month instead of going to the cafeteria and actually buying something? You don't have to seat there, but come on!) Sorry. I felt Wren's character had a lot more real trades, it felt more real, than Cath. The Levi time "reading gay porn to my boyfriend"...I was a bit..."what, is this a thing in the book". Not even going to mention the Simon Snow bits. Anyway, I felt like you put my feelings into words a lot better than me so...yeah.

message 16: by Mary (new) - rated it 3 stars

Mary "It felt like it was lacking something" yes! I did enjoy the book, and don't tend to be a harsh reviewer, but I, too, felt that it was lacking something. It just didn't engage me, in the end, even though there were things about it that I loved. I accepted "the scene" while I was reading it, thinking it was a boy trying to make a girl comfortable by appreciating her passions. But I can certainly see why you think it weird and creepy! The thing is - in the scene itself, CATH think so! She is embarrassed to read this stuff in Levi's house.

And yeah, the lack of mentoring bothered me, and I thought the discussion of fanfic versus "real" writing was a bit shallow.

Interesting review!

shanghao Ahh, I really couldn't stand the Mary Sue on mushrooms that is Cath too. Great analysis!

Harshini Man you are wierd

Erika Thank you! This, all of this. I've never been a fan of fanfiction, so the book did help me gain an understanding of it. But I still can't get behind fanfic, for the exact reason's Cath's professor brought up. But no, Cath can do no wrong, so there's no growth potential for her.

message 20: by Ally (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ally Gerald This is review is great. I couldn't understand for the life of me why everyone loved this book. I'm so glad I came across your review (:

message 21: by KDF (new) - rated it 5 stars

KDF guess this could be considered a rant against your rant. I understand that we all have different tastes and that we read a book and judge it based upon our experiences, mood, personality, tastes, etc. That being said, I have some major disagreements with some of what you said.

First, The Scene. I seriously can't see the Scene through your eyes. Cath made it exceptionally clear that she healthily wanted what was happening with Levi. [I will deal with her supposed emotional age in my following point.] Cath's paralyzed state is not due to rational issues: their relationship appears ready to move forward, she trusts Levi, she is not going against her own majorly-held beliefs, we can assume they were using protection, there is no chance that they'll get interrupted... She basically needs a way to relax. And reading to Levi is something that relaxes her. I do not get any sort of feeling that either of them are actually using the reading to drum up sexual tension; quite the opposite: they are creating their own sexual tension but Cath's anxiety will not allow it to come through. Remember how their first kiss was right after they finished The Outsiders???

My second problem with what you said is about whether Cath grew. You said she was emotionally 13 at the beginning of the book, but she was more an 8 year old. People get stuck at the age the trauma occurred, and her trauma was definitely the mom leaving. And then she was kept there by dad's mental health issues, her codependency with her twin, and the parentification she shares with her twin. That's a whole apartment building of codependency there! Wren choosing to differentiate herself their first year of college takes that first growth-bandaid off. Suddenly she has to see herself as an individual. Developmentally, this is similar to the growth she would do from 8 to 13. And then she has to make friends (if she wants to continue to grow, anyway), which is the developmental task of a 13-18 year old. I feel like she does that successfully with Reagan and Levi. Nick participates in that lesson as well, but his part has to do with paying attention to how people treat you and the give-and-take that can be unhealthy in a friendship. With Nick she learned that friendships can fail and mistakes can be made and even though it hurts and is scary, it's survivable. Oh, and the dad thing, too! He needed to grow so that Cath and Wren could. All of this happens before her friendship with Levi starts moving toward the next level, and I would say she was emotionally truly 18 before they (almost?) kissed. When you have social anxiety, a lot of the trouble is caused by focusing on what might happen. And really, at first, all of her relationships go the 'bad' way (except Reagan): her twin TOTALLY abandons her, becomes a drunk, and almost dies due to drinking; her dad goes fully around the bend and lands in a mental hospital; her mom demonstrates that she is unworthy of that title; her crush starts to turn into something more only to have him in the arms of another girl; a guy who seems be interested turns out to be using her. Pretty much all of her relationships fold at once. And what does she do? Does she cry in her room and hide under the covers? Well, yeah, but then she gets up and authentically works to fix what she can. And then there was that moment in the dorm hallway, where Nick comes to confront her. She has finally accepted help and love from: 1. a friend, 2.her sister, and 3. her boyfriend. Granted, none of those 3 know the full backstory of Nick, but still none of them tell her what think or do or even weigh in on how she should handle this situation. Her group has her back, but they defer to her. I call that proof positive that she has surrounded herself with healthy relationships. And I love that she makes the hardest choice available (which wasn't even a choice offered to her!). Yay, Cath!!! I would call that growth and maturity: all of it!

Fire Moon Reads bless this review . i dont understand why anyone likes this book

message 23: by Sissi (new) - rated it 1 star

Sissi I am reading the book right now and I feel like the main character in itself is the worst and this is the most boring book I have read this year I mean I loved Eleanor and Park but this book is just ugh, at night I want to not read but I don't like leaving books incomplete and this one just makes me hate everything about reading.

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