This book took me completely by surprise. I mean, of course I knew I’d like it, since Rainbow Rowell is a favorite around these parts, but I had no idea it would hit so close to home. I added Fangirl to my wishlist along with a whole mess of other books at the beginning of my push to even out the male-female author ratio in my library. I knew the basic premise of the book but nothing about the author besides her gender, so when the first page included three very clear references to my alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I. flipped. OUT!
And this book is filled with references for the locals. A lot of kids on City Campus really don’t know that East Campus exists. If you try to go to the pizza buffet at Valentino’s at the wrong time, you really will wait forever to get in. The best time to run errands is during football games when almost everyone on campus (and throughout the state) is otherwise occupied. And I loved her clever nods to the residence hall names. She uses one as a character’s first name, another as a last name.
But the best? Cather is the anxious freshman girl on that first page, moving into Pound Hall to live apart from her twin sister, Wren, for the first time, but Cather is also the name of Pound’s twin building, Cather Hall. I’m usually that guy outside the loop who misses all of the Easter eggs in movies, but I got this one. I got all of them. (Sidenote: RIP Cather-Pound residence halls, imploded just before Christmas last year after being deemed too expensive to renovate.)
That’s only one of the many reasons this book hit close to home. Cath? I was that girl. I was introverted and awkward, so nervous about knowing where to go and where to sit that I avoided the cafeteria in favor of an unsustainable diet of snacks stashed under my bed. I studied all the time and didn’t go to parties, didn’t want to be around drunk people since I didn’t drink myself, didn’t do anything that most people would consider fun. I was anxious about everything, especially my parents, divorced and both going through their own serious health problems. And my most important professor, my piano teacher, didn’t get me, either, just like Professor Piper didn’t didn’t understand why Cath wanted to waste her time with fan fiction.
I love a good time travel story, and that’s exactly what this was for me, even though the story itself had nothing to do with time travel. As I read, my mind raced through my own memories of dorm rooms and cafeterias and classrooms and lonely walks across campus late at night in the cold. When Cath went to Andrews Hall to meet with Professor Piper, I thought of my two favorite classes held in that same building and taught by amazing women. And when Cath finally lets her guard down and realizes that people still like her after she shows them her true self, I remembered what it was like after I came out, the relief and release allowing me to truly relax and be myself for the first time in my life.
This book took me to unexpected places, but I’m confident I would have enjoyed it without all of those personal connections. Rowell deftly weaves the main story with the fan fiction story, all so very meta since the fanfic is for a very thinly veiled homage to Harry Potter. She strikes just the right balance between the heavy and the light, and there’s a lot going on, between the father’s mental illness and the sister’s drinking problem and the estranged mother’s ill-timed return. And she clearly has a lot of respect for her audience. She doesn’t spell everything out, doesn’t wrap everything up too neatly in the end. Rainbow Rowell has earned her own fans, and I now count myself as one of them.