FanGirl, by Rainbow Rowell

Like many of Rainbow Rowell’s stories, Fangirl is a coming of age story set in Omaha, Nebraska, involving an awkward girl (or at least a girl who perceives herself as being awkward), a boy, and a series of obstacles between their inevitable relationship. While on the surface, this may sound a little too predictably “girl meets boy” to make it worth the time to read, as with all of the other Rowell novels I have read to date, it is not the plot line that keeps you turning the pages, it is the characters. They feel like real people, and much of the time, people you might actually want to spend time with… well, at least if they were actual people, who lived near you, and were your age. I love that. But perhaps my favorite thing about Rowell’s work is that she does not give her characters perfect lives, and she does not shy away from dealing with those imperfections (real or imagined) or the struggles that result from them. Whether she is dealing with poverty, abuse, social anxiety, weight issues, or just the struggle of being a teenager in a culture that seems to be based on trying to make everyone think they are supposed to be the same, she treats her characters with respect and allows their issues and struggles to be merely a part of their life or personality, not their defining characteristic. As a result, Rowell’s characters burst from the pages fully formed, complete with flaws, faults, and quirks, staring in their own story rather than being the best-friend, or worse yet, a one-dimensional plot device.

Fangirl tells the story of Cath’s first year of college. For some, this may mean fraternity parties, freedom, or even struggling with the adjustment to being surrounded by people who are all just as smart, or smarter, than you and trying to keep up academically. But for Cath, a true super fan of the Simon Snow series (which Rowell invented just for this novel), her biggest struggle is trying to balance her online forum presence writing fan-fiction about the one and only Simon Snow, with the fact that she is being forced to participate with the world around her, away from home for the first time, and largely without her twin sister Wren. Along the way she learns about trust, love, loyalty, and letting go. Sorry for being vague, but Rowell allows all of these struggles and triumphs to blossom so naturally and organically that trying to summarize them would rob you of the experience of discovering them. And while I did say that the characters are more important than the plot in this book, I won’t sit here and pretend that the plot is completely inconsequential or without any surprising twists.

Throughout the book, there are countless excerpts of Cath’s Simon Snow fan-fiction. These excerpts are particularly entertaining if you have read any of the YA fantasy novels that have attracted a rather extreme-fan followings. In particular, I noticed elements that seemed to be inspired by J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Cassandra Clare’s The Shadow Hunter and Mortal Instrument, and even some remnant traces of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight novels. However, I am sure that there are others in there as well.

This novel, made me nostalgic for that terrifying, liberating, and exciting year of self-discovery, and at times even self-deception, that is the freshman year of college. I really enjoyed seeing them through Cath’s eyes and the memories that they brought back for me. It was also quite enjoyable to have the socially awkward and quiet girl, who likes to read and write, be the focus of the story rather than just a background character. Moreover, as a former mental health professional, I really cannot say enough how much I appreciate the respectful (while still truthful) manner in which Rowell handled all of the mental health issues in this story. Never once did it ever feel as if any of the characters were being judged or made fun of because of their issues or struggles, nor were they defined by them; not even when those issues caused distress or pain to others. If for no other reason whatsoever, this alone would cause me to recommend this book to just about everyone. The fact that it was an entertaining, clever, and starred a book obsessed, somewhat socially awkward, writer just made me like it that much more.

*****

Warning! The following section contains spoilers.

*****

Locations

Lincoln, Nebraska

  1. In the novel Cath and her sister Wren attend the University of Nebraska – Lincoln (http://www.unl.edu). Obviously, as the oldest and largest university in the state of Nebraska is a very real institution. As described in the book UNL is divided into two separate campuses City Campus and East Campus.
    1. City Campus – Cath’s domain. For a map of the City Campus check out the Campus Maps located in the visitor area of the UNL web site. http://maps.unl.edu/city/.
      • Cath lives in Pound Hall, room 913. This is a real student dormitory, located in the middle of the University campus. (http://housing.unl.edu/pound-hall) Photographs and floor plans of the dorm rooms are provided on the UNL housing web site.
      • Wren, lives in Schramm Hall, no room number given. This too is a real student dormitory and is located on the North end of campus. (http://housing.unl.edu/schramm-hall) Photographs and floor plans of the dorm rooms are provided on the UNL housing web site.
      • Love Library, where Cath and Nick meet to write, is one of nine libraries located on the University’s campus. It is named for Mayor Dun Lathrop Love and was built between 1941 and 1943. More information and photographs can be found through the UNL library web site (http://libraries.unl.edu/love-library ).
    2. East Campus – is Levi’s domain. For a map of the East Campus check out the Campus Maps located in the visitor area of the UNL web site. http://maps.unl.edu/east/. Locations mentioned from East Campus are:
      • The agriculture department where Levi is a student.
      • The Dental College where Levi and Cath stop to use the bathroom.
      • The Gardens where Levi and Cath walk on their date in the snow.
  2. Muggsy’s– the bar East of campus where Cath meets Wren after receiving what she thought was a text for help appears to be either a purely fictional location, or perhaps an amalgamation of several real (or imagined) locations. However, given that in the story alcohol is served to an under-aged person in this establishments I think it is safe to assume that if this is a real place they might not wish to have their name associated with that particular plot point.
  3. The 24-hour truck stop near the edge of town, where Levi assures Cath that no one will mind that she is in her pajamas and where they eat the best Corn beef hash ever made, appears by description and geographic assignment to be the Hi-Way Diner. A 24 hour, 7 day a week restaurant that has been serving comfort food to the good people of Lincoln for 30 years. Their web site http://hiwaydinerlincoln.com photographs also appear to confirm that this IS the place.
  4. Walford Bookstore, where Cath et al celeberate the release of the final Simon Snow Book, appears to be fictional, but seems to bare at least a perfunctory resemblance to several large retail book chains.

Omaha, Nebraska

  1. Cath and Wren’s hometown, where they live in a largely Hispanic area, with their father. According to the Internet there are several possibilities that fit this vague description. However, since I am not from, and have not ever visited, I have no way of narrowing down which area of Omaha in particular is the best candidate.
  2. Saint Richard’s Hospital, the psychiatric hospital where Cath goes to see her father is a real hospital in North Omaha. It appears to be a part of a the Charles Drew Health Care Center, Inc. (http://charlesdrew.com/noihsc/) who have been taking care of health care needs in the area since the 1970’s.
  3. Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital, where Wren is later admitted for alcohol poisoning, is a real hospital located in Lincoln, Nebraska. Today it is a part of CHI Health. (http://charlesdrew.com/noihsc/)
  4. Guaca Maya, the club in Omaha where Wren and Jandro try to get Cath and Levi to join them is real place. At the time of the this writing, their website is currently under construction: http://www.guaca-maya.com. However, from the 100s of reviews available, it sounds like a really great place…with amazing food.

 

 

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