***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
One-sentence summary: Great writing, some interesting themes, but too much is stuffed into this book and it paradoxically feels like nothing much happens.
Rowell's language is pretty but practical, exactly the right balance for a first-person narration by a bright teen. I like it that Cather's relationship with Levi evolved slowly, even though they were in college: it's important for less sexual teen readers to see themselves in books--that not everyone hops immediately into bed. It makes this solidly YA rather than New Adult. I like it that we feel that a real year has passed since Cath started school. At the same time (and I don't think this statement is contradictory), I often felt that I'd been reading for a year and that the book was too darned long. Some trimming would have helped the pacing, starting with the excessive number of themes and conflicts, and the superfluous Simon Snow sections that don't enhance the plot.
What is this book about? The last lines of a novel are the moment you can sometimes pull purpose out of an otherwise meandering plot. Last lines have a way of focusing the author. In fact, Richard Peck's biggest how-to-write mantra is that when you've set down the last lines, you finally know where the book is going, and then your job is to re-write the rest of the manuscript keeping that new story in mind.
The last lines of Fangirl are an excerpt from from Cath's short story, which readers will realize she submitted (at her professor's urging) to the undergraduate short story competition. The lines from that excerpt are clearly meant to metaphorically wrap up Cath's story, too. So what do we have in these lines? A little girl who learns that she's okay, even when her sister doesn't "find" her in hide-and-seek and validate her; we have the message that it's fine to be on your own, to be quiet in yourself, to come out of your hiding place when you're ready, on your terms. So yes, this does resonate with a part of our story: Cath's most noticeable change in the book is that she's less socially phobic by the end. She understands that Simon Snow was a way for her to experience friendship and the world from her cocoon, and that she has to live more in the real world now--that she's strong enough she doesn't have to rely on her sister, she can forge new friendships and find joy in them. But there were so many other threads in this story that Cath's short story excerpt doesn't address. Reading the excerpt had the unfortunate effect of making us feel like not everything was resolved; writing it should have made Rowell realize that there was "too much" in the book and she needed to pare this down to the "new story" she now had--which perhaps is the story about Cath learning to come out of her shell and be an individual, not part of a twin unit. For instance, in addition to this theme of independence, Cath has also learned to allow herself to fall in love by the end of the book. For a long time she held Levi at arm's length, afraid of abandonment, because her mother had left her. But by making the hide-and-seek metaphor rely so heavily on Wren, Cath's sister, we feel the unrelatedness of this thread, because Wren was never really part of the Levi love story.
Where is Wren? Cath's sister's disappears for much of the novel, and then reappears. We never really know Wren in this book. We're told about her, but we don't know her. And a twin relationship is so deep, in order to see Cath striking out on her own we would have benefited from feeling that relationship more. There is a lot of telling in this novel, disguised as showing. It's a danger with first-person, and in this case we're told that Wren and Cath were inseparable growing up, that Wren lubricated Cath's social life, which she wasn't able to orchestrate on her own, that Simon Snow and Carry On was always a passionate joint project. Yet in the long evolution of coming out of her shell, Cath never relied (as far as we see first-hand) on Wren--she apparently muddled ahead on her own, hesitantly, reluctantly, but with incremental progress.
Furthermore, many of Cath's other problems don't involve Wren. Her keeping Levi at a distance was tied with her mother's abandonment (Cath felt that loving someone would guarantee that they'd leave), yet the resolution of that phobia didn't resolve in any way that linked up with her mother--it resolved more because of Cath's general growth toward being less of a hermit.
Cath's mother. What is Cath's mother's place in the novel? Why does she come back for one short day? What does Cath learn from that? It's not clear. And the one theme that's tied to her--the theme of Cath opening up to Levi--doesn't seem to benefit from the mother's appearance.
Levi's family predicament. Levi mentions a potential estate problem down the line when his parents die, and the fact that some of his siblings want to keep the ranch running and some want to sell it. Why is that conflict introduced? We don't resolve Levi's story at all. We're told his parents are strict and religious, yet we don't know why that matters to us, other than to hear Cath's roommate joke that she has broken Levi's mom in, giving Cath a jealous twinge that she has to suppress.
Threads, threads, threads! There is just so much going on in this book, it makes it feel unfocused. Some of the threads feel superficial...why are they there, other than to make this work feel almost like A Diary of My First Year of College? Here are just the threads I can think of off the top of my head: Cath is trying to finish her fan-fiction before the author finishes the last book of the canon series; Cath's dad is bi-polar, and she feels responsible for his health and safety; Wren doesn't want to live with her in college; Wren has an alcohol problem; Cath is socially phobic; Cath's mother abandoned them and started a new family; Cath's mother has reached out to Wren; Cath has a roommate she has to learn how to navigate, who may or may not be able to tolerate her; Cath has talked her way into an advanced-level fiction course, and now has writer's block; Cath's writing partner in the fiction course is stealing her work but she also finds him attractive; Levi likes her but Cath worries that a relationship is too sticky given that he's her roommate's ex. Yes, real life has a thousand small conflicts, but in a novel it's nice for readers to be able to focus on just a couple of them.
The Simon Snow snippets drag down the pace. I tried to find a way that these excerpts--both canon and fan-fic--tied in with Cath's story, and the links just weren't there most of the time. I wasn't invested in Simon at all, and I wanted to hurry through his story. I was also perplexed by a world that included Simon Snow and Harry Potter. I liked that Simon and Baz were gay in Carry On, but I wanted to see more of that open-mindedness expressed in Cath's attitudes toward everything. Would she really have been slightly aghast at other girls who happily slept around with boys?
The title. I know authors very often don't choose their titles, so I can't attribute this fumble to Rowel, but "Fangirl" contributes nothing to understanding the core of this novel, and ends up distracting from what should be the core. A title that somehow references Cather's growing independence would have helped solidify that theme, and would have tied in with the short story excerpt that forms the last lines of the book.