Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Book Review: Fangirl

Remember how excited I was to finally get started on Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell?

This is what you get when you buy into all the hype before reading a book.

I'd heard SO many good things about this book and this author. Two of Rowell's books had topped the Goodreads Choice Awards in 2013, and there were so many five-star reviews for Fangirl.

But while I found the book entertaining enough, I couldn't help but feel a little let down.

The Lowdown

Fangirl is about this introverted girl, Cath, whose twin sister Wren starts to drift away from her after as soon as they start college. While Wren is out partying and drinking herself silly, Cath presses on with her super popular fanfiction about the Simon Snow books (the equivalent of the Harry Potter series). There isn't much of an overarching narrative thread. It's just like a chronicle of Cath's life as she goes through college, gradually sticks her head out of her hermit hole and meet people, get a boyfriend, and explain why fanfic is legitimate fiction to her Creative Writing professor.

The Verdict

The book wasn't terrible. Some parts were really good, such as the Simon Snow bits (I was far more interested in reading about Simon Snow the magician and his nemesis Baz than Cath's relationship drama), and the strained relationship between Cath and her mother (wow, that one got very close to home, I'll give you that). But the parts I wish Rowell had explored were kind of underdeveloped. In the end, Cath's mother just sort of disappeared towards the story. I really wanted to see some kind of emotional outburst or denouement between Cath and her mom, but the latter just faded out of the story to let the romance take over.

The Romance 

And speaking of the romance, I seriously thought it was meant to be satirical at first. The way Cath and Levi (her roommate's boyfriend, whom her roommate two-timed, so that makes it okay for Cath and Levi to get together) fawn over each other. Cath is all up in his face, kissing his jaw, his chin, his nose, his lips, and they're always going on about how gorgeous and adorable each other is and how much they miss each other.

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I mean, I get that you're infatuated, but do people seriously go googly-eyed all. the. time. about their partners? Even if they do, does that fawning need to take up practically half the book? I found myself skipping the parts where they are all over each other, and more than once I wondered if Rowell was being serious or satirical about the whole YA/NA romance genre.

The Dialogue

I actually really liked the dialogue. It was one of the better qualities of the book. It felt natural and there were funny bits like this:

“You look ridiculous,” Wren said.
“That shirt.” It was a Hello Kitty shirt from eighth or ninth grade. Hello Kitty dressed as a superhero. It said SUPER CAT on the back, and Wren had added an H with fabric paint. The shirt was cropped too short to begin with, and it didn’t really fit anymore. Cath pulled it down self-consciously.
“Cath!” her dad shouted from downstairs. “Phone.”
Cath picked up her cell phone and looked at it.
“He must mean the house phone,” Wren said.
“Who calls the house phone?”
“Probably 2005. I think it wants its shirt back.” 

I can just imagine this being read out in play-writing class (miss you guys!) and getting some laughs.

And then there are some bright moments like this one between Cath and her dad:

“Isn’t giving up allowed sometimes? Isn’t it okay to say, ‘This really hurts, so I’m going to stop trying’?"
"It sets a dangerous precedent."
"For avoiding pain?"
"For avoiding life.” 

But then there's semi-annoying banter like this:

“What if I promise not to touch you?"
"Cath laughed. "Now I have zero incentive to come."
"What if I promise to let you touch me first?"
"Are you kidding? I'm the untrustworthy person in this relationship. I'm all hands."
"I've seen no evidence of that, Cath."
"In my head, I'm all hands."
"I want to live in your head.” 

And sappy moments like this:

“You're beautiful," she said.
"That's you."
"Don't argue with me. You're beautiful.” 

And descriptions like this:

“Cath couldn't stop thinking about Levi and his ten thousand smiles.” 

“His mouth was small, but bowed. Like a doll's. She wondered if he had trouble opening it wide enough to eat apples.” 

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The Conflict

Everything was very la-di-da and smooth-sailing for Cath. Sure, she had a writing buddy who practically stole her story and a writing professor who gave her a bad grade because she submitted fanfic for an assignment (duh) and a sister who kept getting into trouble and expecting her to clean up after her and a mom who suddenly wanted contact with them. But everything felt kind of random and thrown together. I get that it mimics real life, since there's no "overarching narrative thread" in reality, but it felt like Rowell smoothed these little issues over very easily.

The biggest challenge in school for Cath was ... eating in the dining hall. Seriously, she kept a stash of energy bars so she wouldn't have to eat alone in the dining hall. I get that, I really do. But I wanted to know more about her social anxiety - why is she this way? what happened in the past for her to be so afraid of meeting people? how is this going to affect her interaction with the new people she meets in college eventually? (It doesn't, by the way, if her over effusiveness with Levi is any indication.)

I kept waiting for everything to snowball into something big at the end that led to a transformation in Cath (or any character). But even the fight she and Levi had towards the end was resolved in three pages or so.

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More! I need more conflict - both internal and external - to make me root for the characters! (There was, however, this one scene between Cath and Wren, where they argued about their mother. Cath hates her, wants nothing to do with her, sees Wren as fraternising with the enemy when the latter agrees to have lunch and be in contact with her. That was a particularly emotionally charged scene and I could totally relate to Cath. I only wished there were more moments like this in the book.)

I don't know. Is it just me? Am I not quite getting something, some hidden awesomeness about Fangirl? Five-star YA contemporary is Sarah Dessen and Cath Crowley and Melina Marchetta for me. Fangirl is more like a 3 or 3.5 (a bonus 0.5 for the Simon Snow bits - even Baz, a fictional character, had more backstory than Cath, the protagonist).

(Just to be clear, I didn't HATE it. I enjoyed it well enough. But I just don't get the hype. For all the glowing reviews it got, I expected Fangirl to blow me away like What Happened to Goodbye or Graffiti Moon had.)

Still, I'm hoping Rowell's other book, Eleanor and Park (which comes with its own set of 5-star reviews on Goodreads), will ease up on the weird touching and hungry kissing and sappy praises about love interest's lips or hair or eyes or cheeks.

But from what I've read so far, that doesn't seem too likely. Eleanor and Park have gone from sitting next to each other on the bus (because they had no choice) to sharing comic books and music to stroking each other's hands to this:

Although I think the characters in Eleanor and Park have more backstory and personal conflict than those in Fangirl, so I'm holding out on the hope that this book will make me understand all those 5-star reviews. Okay, going in blind now...

Hope your week is filled with slightly more gratifying books! :0)

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