“The whole point of fanfiction,” she said, “is that you get to play inside somebody else’s universe. Rewrite the rules. Or bend them. The story doesn’t have to end when Gemma Leslie gets tired of it. You can stay in this world, this world you love, as long as you want, as long as you keep thinking of new stories—” (Rainbow Rowell, Fangirl)
Cath freed an arm to wrap around her sister. “I can’t believe it’s really over,” she whispered.
Wren held her tight and shook her head. She really was crying, too. “Don’t be so melodramatic, Cath,” Wren laughed hoarsely. “It’s never over…. It’s Simon.” (Rainbow Rowell, Fangirl)
I recently read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl in between study sessions for some really important exams, and I don’t regret it one bit. The fact that I passed the exams might have something to do with this conclusion, but the book was so wonderful that I couldn’t stop reading. This novel is the story of Cather “Cath” Avery, who is a fangirl. Cath and her twin sister Wren, both fans of the Simon Snow book series by Gemma T. Leslie, are headed to college at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in the fall of 2011. This will be the first time in their lives that they won’t be sharing a room, because Wren has decided she wants some independence and doesn’t want to be her sister’s roommate. Readers follow Cath as she tries to navigate her first year of college, which includes dealing with classes, making new friends, worrying about her family, and making decisions about her future. The book’s touching dedication reads, “For Jennifer, who always had an extra lightsaber”. In a recent article, Rowell wrote that Jennifer is the best friend she would geek out with before she could participate in fandom.
The book begins with an entry from Encyclowikia about the fictional Simon Snow series, and we find out more about the series throughout the novel. Written by fictional author Gemma T. Leslie, the series consists of eight books, the last of which is to be released in May of 2012, at the end of Cath’s first year of college. The books in the series are Simon Snow and the Mage’s Heir (2001), Simon Snow and the Second Serpent (2003), Simon Snow and the Third Gate (2004), Simon Snow and the Selkies Four (2007), Simon Snow and the Five Blades (2008), Simon Snow and Six White Hares (2009), Simon Snow and the Seventh Oak (2010), and Simon Snow and the Eighth Dance (1 May 2012). The series is a very obvious, and very hilarious, reference to Harry Potter. It’s the story of an orphan boy magician from Lancashire who starts attending Watford School of Magicks when he’s eleven years old and must defeat the Insidious Humdrum. Simon has two friends named Penelope and Agatha and a school rival named Baz. The series has been translated into dozens of languages, sold hundreds of millions of copies, and been boycotted by Christian groups. Simon Snow has many fans and is so famous that there are midnight release parties for new books. Around Christmastime, there are marathons of the movies based on the books. There are fans (including Cath) who enjoy slash fanfiction about Simon and Baz. Harry Potter fans will likely recognize the many references to the series, everything from the obvious items I’ve already mentioned to certain smaller points that are jokes within the fandom. Rowell manages to describe the series in a way that is both funny and moving, letting fans both laugh at ourselves (and at our favorite series) while also feeling that the author understands us.
Cath goes to college with Simon Snow posters, a stockpile of protein bars and peanut butter, and a love of writing. Having tested out of Freshman Comp, she even gets permission to take Intro to Fiction-Writing (a junior-level course). She is initially lonely, spending much less time with Wren that she used to, but then gains some new friends. Her roommate Reagan realizes that Cath never eats at the Pound dining hall (and, in fact, doesn’t know where it is) and decides to intervene. Cath also becomes friends with and starts to date Levi, who is Reagan’s former boyfriend, and tries to figure out how to be in a romantic relationship, which she doesn’t have much experience with. She’s also very worried about her dad, because she and Wren aren’t there to look after him, and about Wren, who has been drinking quite a lot. The Intro to Fiction-Writing class is going very well at first; the professor loves Cath’s stories and she has a writing partner named Nick. However, a bad decision on Cath’s part and a betrayal by someone she trusted lead to problems, and she considers giving up her dream of writing her own original fiction. There are also sudden family medical emergencies and a meeting with her mother, who abandoned the family ten years prior. Throughout, Cath is trying to update her lengthy Simon Snow fanfiction Carry On, Simon (which is famous within the fandom, making “Magicath” a fan with her own fans) in order to get it finished before book eight is released. Cath gains confidence, stands up for herself, makes decisions about her priorities, and tries to hold on to everything that is important to her.
One of the fun aspects of the book is the inclusion of fictional excerpts throughout, including passages from Gemma T. Leslie’s Simon Snow books and from Cath and Wren’s fanfiction, a message on the FanFixx.net homepage, a quote from an article about the Simon Snow fandom, and (at the end) a passage from an original story written by Cath. Fans will recognize certain references to moments from the Harry Potter series as well as common tropes (and amateur writing) often found in fanfiction. Besides being really fun to read, these excerpts fit with the main story, adding insight to what is going on in Cath’s life. Many fans think about their favorite fictional stories when faced with a confusing or difficult situation in their own lives, and the excerpts show the reader that the Simon Snow series has that same place in Cath’s life. It’s always there, even if just in the background, influencing her worldview, and her life experiences (especially conversations with Wren) often make it into her fanfiction.
I could really relate to Cath, and not just because Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released at the end of my first year of college (though I did find that a fun similarity). Cath has lived inside a fictional world for much of her life, as an escape; now, she has the opportunity to gain new friends and live out her dreams of becoming an author, so she is both excited and nervous. The world that was once her escape becomes part of the foundation of her life; her fanfiction becomes a way for others to get to know her, and she gains confidence in herself and hope for the future. The novel takes seriously the importance that many fans place on their favorite stories and the difficulty and scariness of dealing with new situations when we feel we are losing these stories or drifting away from them. It also addresses the experience of using fiction as both an escape from the world and a way to engage with the world.
I definitely recommend this book. Fans who have ever been obsessed with a fictional world, especially those who have used stories to escape from horrible things happening in their own lives, will find a protagonist they can relate to and a story that is understanding of their experiences. We fans are often told that our favorite stories are for children, and that leaving them behind (while perhaps looking back with some nostalgia) is part of growing up. Despite this, we know that these stories have had such an important impact on our lives that we can’t leave them behind; we just have to find out how to love our favorite stories and also be confident enough to live in the real world. We cheer for Cath to make a life for herself while still holding on to the story she loves, because we desire to do the same.
 Rowell, Rainbow. Fangirl. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013, Ch 11, p. 96. E-book.
 Rowell, Fangirl, Ch 37, p. 314.
 Rowell, Rainbow. “Geeking Out in a Vacuum: Life Before Fandom”. Posted on 13 September 2013 at Tor. Retrieved on 2 October 2013 from http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/09/geeking-out-in-a-vaccum-life-before-fandom.
 Sharmin, Ani J. “The Great Transition: Thoughts on the Future of the Harry Potter Fandom”. Posted on 3 July 2012 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 2 October 2013 from http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/the-great-transition/.