Rowell's second book a rewarding read

Oct. 10, 2013 @ 09:04 AM

Rainbow Rowell burst on the scene with “Eleanor and Park” (St Martin’s Griffin, ages 14 and up), the story of an unpopular, unattractive, prickly young woman who wins the love of Park. Park, the book’s second narrator, gets past Eleanor’s guardedness and learns heartbreaking truths that rule her life. Rowell’s first book captured children’s book fans, including the celebrated YA author John Green who wrote a glowing New York Times article, and five writers who gave it starred reviews.  
Rowell, like author Elizabeth Wein in my previous column, has published a second book this year, “Fangirl” (St. Martin’s Griffin, ages 14 and up). In it, she covers new ground and writes in a very different style. “Eleanor and Park” was spare and short and beginning “Fangirl,” I wondered where she’d travel in its 400 pages. Eleanor had a dramatic and sudden entry, literally and literarily; “Fangirl” started more slowly and Cath Avery, the heroine didn’t make me fall for her as fast and hard as I did for Eleanor. But in 50 pages I was won over and had a curious response -- I didn’t want to stop reading and never wanted the book to end.
Cath, at first, appears to be a college freshman so unlikeable that you can understand why her twin sister, Wren, has chosen to room with someone else their first year of college. Wren is off on a “beautiful new adventure” of drinking at frats wither her bubbly, bubble-headed roommate while Cath can’t “shake the feeling that she was pretending to be a college student in a coming-of-age movie.” 
Like Eleanor, Cath is snarky and witty. I quickly sensed that Cath is also hurting inside because of intriguing hints such as her worry over separating from her father and the fact she’s brought five boxes of protein bars and three giant jars of peanut butter to college so she won’t have to go eat with her peers. 
A month later her roommate Reagan finally drags her to the dining room and accuses her of having no friends. That is no real friends, for she won’t allow Cath to count the 20,000 fans who regularly read her fan fiction, “Carry On, Simon,” a gay-vampire-magical reworking of a fantasy written by Gemma T. Leslie. Cath is working rapidly to finish her version before the eight and last Simon Snow book comes out.   Between realistic chapters, Rowell places excerpts from Leslie’s original Harry Potter-like fantasy, or Cath’s fan fiction. Even though I’m not a fantasy fan and am unfamiliar with the fan fiction genre, I read every last one, appreciating the invention, the Potter parallels, and the way these interludes link to the more real chapters.
Cath’s writing is another reason she misses her sister Wren, for they started writing the fanfiction as  Magicath and Wrenegade, now she carries on alone. She’s managing that, but then she learns of something else that feels like a betrayal. Wren’s  begun to see the mother who left them on 9-11, traumatizing both of them. “After her mom left, Wren acted out, cutting another third-grader’s dress with safety scissors while Cath “acted in” by wetting her pants. Cath’s furious as she hasn’t forgiven the desertion of a “mom who was so self-centered, she couldn’t be trusted not to desecrate a national tragedy with her own issues.”
Cath’s writing enables her to form a relationship with Levi, a character with whom I fell in love from the first pages. He shows up far more frequently than Cath’s roommate and at first Cath is wary of his many appearances, feels he turns the room  “rapey,” and doesn’t trust how he “passed out smiles to everyone he met, like it didn’t cost him anything, like he’d never run out.”  Cath has described how love feels a thousand times on FanFixx.com, but in real life, the closest she’s gotten is when the high school boy she dated got her a power cord for her birthday. How can Cath resist Levi when he’s driven her to visit her hospitalized bipolar father after an episode? And yet, at first she wonders why she’d want to kiss a stranger, when she’s not interested in “lips out of context.” Later she worries about the intensity of her own responses.
Rowell’s YA is studded with unique turns of phrase, has an original structure, spot-on dialogue, and characters who are engaging because their flaws. The book has many layers, all of them imparted slowly. That certainly makes sense for a heroine who hides much, even from herself. It also serves readers who will care for Cath more deeply as they come to know and understand her vulnerabilities — the fear of her father’s episodes and involvement with Levi and the shock when a professor she admires calls  her fan fiction “stolen” and urges her to write from her own life. It is like Cath to keep readers (and herself) waiting, but at book’s end I feel rewarded as again Rowell concludes with haunting last pages that mark Cath’s courageous first steps in revealing her true self.
Read more at Susie Wilde’s website, ignitingwriting.com.