Reading Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park was like a punch to the gut. The only other time I’ve had that experience while reading a book was when I read Why We Broke Up a couple of years ago–they’re both books that make you so nostalgic that you’re almost dizzy, a heavy, heady feeling that creeps into your mind and doesn’t go away. It wasn’t the plot that resonated so much as it was the truth Rowell manages to find, that universal feeling of loving and trusting and losing and breaking for the first time.
Broadly, it’s your typical opposites attract, wrong side/right side of the tracks story: Eleanor’s a big girl with wild red hair who comes from a broken, dysfunctional family; Park is an upper-middle-class Korean boy who never does anything to rock the boat. They meet, they hate each other, they fall in love. Heartache ensues. It is a testament to Rowell’s power as a writer that she can take a story that has been told hundreds of thousands of times and make it feel new and fresh and real. Her characters are messy, their relationship is messy, and the world they live in is messy–there’s no teen-lit white-washing going on here.
And that’s what makes this so compelling: the raw truth of these characters and their interactions. There’s plots relating to both families, and people at school, but the bulk of the book–and the heart of it–belongs to Eleanor and Park. They’re so wrapped up in each other and you’re so wrapped up in them that you start to forget who’s who, what’s what, whether you’re reading their story or just remembering your own high school romance. It’s tender and sweet, but it’s also real. So many YA romances are filled with soap opera-worthy drama or sparkly fairy-tale happy endings, and this was one of those rare books that isn’t. Rowell knows, and conveys, that teen romances feel like forever, but aren’t–or maybe they are, but only someday. The things bringing Eleanor and Park together and keeping them apart aren’t loud and shiny; it’s just life, life happening around them, unfairly or not. I sped through this book, so emotionally invested that I honestly couldn’t put it down. When I finished, I felt like I’d just gone through a breakup, stunned and cotton-mouthed and weepy-eyed. I was, in short, a mess.
After I recovered, I immediately sought out more of Rowell’s work. After a few weeks on the waitlist at the library, I picked up a copy of Fangirl. And from pretty much the first page, I was disappointed. I will admit that my experience was certainly colored by the fact that my expectations were so, so high, and maybe if I’d read Fangirl first I’d have liked it more. But it just felt…watered down.
Fangirl is about Cath, a Nebraskan girl heading to college. She’s not excited about it, especially since her twin sister, Wren, decided they shouldn’t live together, and isn’t interested in writing their shared fan-fiction anymore, about a series that is a thinly-veiled stand-in for Harry Potter, called Simon Snow. Once at school, she has to learn to deal with her changing relationship with her sister, her complicated parents, and falling in love for the first time.
Cath was just a really hard character to root for–she was boring and judgmental and immature and self-righteous, and I just couldn’t force myself to be invested in any aspect of her story. It seemed like Rowell was trying to recapture the magic that was Eleanor–a flawed character, kind of nerdy, with a bad family life, but ultimately someone you could care for–and fell flat. Cath didn’t have enough spirit or depth to keep her interesting. This was problematic when it came to the romantic aspects of the novel, because it never made sense to me why the love interest (who I won’t name for the sake of spoilers, although it’s telegraphed from the first few pages who it’s going to be) would like her so much. I actually enjoyed him as a character, for the most part, although he didn’t feel grounded in reality–he was like a teenager’s dream of what the ideal boyfriend would be like.
One of the other things that really bothered me about this book was the use of excerpts from Cath’s fan fiction, which were included at the beginning of every chapter (and sometimes interspersed throughout). Maybe I just don’t get fan fiction, but it really annoyed me, and for all that Cath was supposed to be the best fan-fic writer that ever lived, it wasn’t very well-written. About halfway through, I began skipping those sections, which made it a little more enjoyable for me.
Okay, so I did like some things. I thought the relationship between Cath and Wren was really well-done, and I thought that made for an interesting story–twins figuring out what it means to be an individual, and to lead separate lives. I almost would have rather seen the whole book from Wren’s perspective, because I thought she was more interesting. I also think that Cath’s family problems were compelling, and Rowell handled them beautifully. And like in Eleanor and Park, Rowell sure does know how to write realistic, romantic but not over-the-top, young love scenes. (With the exception of one notable scene, easily one of the most cringeworthy I’ve ever read, in which the love interest asks Cath to read her fan-fic aloud in order to get in the mood so they can hook up. Ick!)
Actually, now that I think about it, if the fan-fic element hadn’t been included at all, and Cath was just a shy and nerdy girl, I would have liked this book so much more. Unfortunately, given that it’s straight-up called Fangirl, it just wasn’t meant to be. And I’ve also heard that Rowell is actually writing the Simon Snow books that the Fangirl fan-fiction was based on, which is just way too meta for me, and disappointing, because I’d rather she focus her efforts on something more interesting. Because those books really already exist–they’re called Harry Potter, and they’re really good.