I was first introduced to Rainbow Rowell (as an author, not personally) by browsing the YA section at a bookstore, where I came across Fangirl. (Since I got out of cataloging, this is essentially how I pick up books now.) A book – a novel – about fandom, by someone named Rainbow? It seemed unreal. I was sold. Shortly after I finished it, a friend, not knowing I’d just read Rowell, recommended me Eleanor & Park. So I read that, too. You know how these things go. Which did I like better, the book about a struggling romance between two incredibly awkward teens for whom nothing really goes right, or a book about an introverted fanfiction author navigating the waters of college freshman-dom? Answers, and spoilers, to follow…
Since I read it first, I’ll discuss it first. Fangirl deals with something I haven’t seen touched upon in ‘legitimate’ fiction before: the culture of fanfiction. Protagonist Cather Avery starts her freshman year of college separated from her twin sister Wren, who has decided she wants to break away from being A Twin and the girls’ shared passion of writing fanfiction for the young adult book series about teen magician Simon Snow. (Rowell helpfully hangs a lantern on the fact that Harry Potter also exists in this universe.) Cath is shy and reclusive, but she is very involved in the Snow fandom as a writer of a beloved epic that’s so popular people have made t-shirts. Of course, when Cath submits a new fic to her advanced creative writing class, her professor spits out the opinion of the masses that it’s pointless, a waste of time and talent, and nigh-plagiarism. (Which I think is grossly unfair of a writing professor, to say ‘the writing you just did is completely invalid.’ Shouldn’t the function of a writing professor to be to encourage writing?) Cath is suitably crushed.
Meanwhile, Cath has a few people resembling friends, namely her roommate Reagan, who is a bit surly and critical, but not in an entirely bad way, in the way that real people can be those things but aren’t bad people. She pities Cath and takes her under her wing, getting her to do things such as actually brave the cafeteria. There’s also Reagan’s everpresent boyfriend Levi, who is too smiley for anyone’s good, and who also turns out to not actually be Reagan’s boyfriend (he’s an ex, it was a small town, they have remained friends). And there’s the writing partner from Cath’s fiction class, who is a few years older and takes advantage of Cath’s skills by asking her to edit a piece he’s been working on, since they collaborate so well together, only to submit it without giving her any credit for the hours she’s put in making it better. (This works out more or less okay: Cath’s fanfic-hating writing professor recognizes the differences in their styles and calls the thief out on it, saying he can’t publish without Cath getting credit. Cath refuses in her own quiet way, and it’s glorious.)
Plus, her twin Wren has been getting even more distant, hanging out with her ditzy roommate and drinking nearly-constantly. She gets a regular boyfriend without Cath even knowing, and worse yet, is starting to make contact with the mother that abandoned them nearly a decade earlier, someone Cath is determined to hate forever.
It’s fun watching Cath develop, as her introversion is completely understandable: she’s spent her life with a built-in best friend and hasn’t really needed to branch out. Her mother abandoned her, so she has trust issues, her father is sweet but unstable (it’s never explicitly stated, but I believe he’s bipolar?). And now, her slightly more extroverted sister wants to grow up beyond writing fanfiction for a children’s/YA series, even though working together was a source of great fun and comfort for both of them up until college started. Simon Snow has been there for Cath as a way of getting out in the world, a way of communicating through her fanpage, of being loved and accepted, and of course she’d want to retreat into that when the rest of the world is full of people she cannot comprehend. This is a character I can fully get behind, because there’s never a big makeover moment where a tragedy forces her to come into her own and shed her introversion or her fanfiction. There are tragedies, yes, but Cath doesn’t really change. She’s presented as odd and even suggests herself that she’s somewhat socially retarded, but she’s never villainized for it. Cath just gradually comes to her own ideas and her own terms in her own time. And the other characters let her do things and let her develop in her own way. She never up and decides to abandon fanfiction (the world that’s supported her for so long now) in favor of ‘real’ fiction, she manages to combine both into her life. It’s heartwarming, and it’s a great message about how learning a life lesson doesn’t mean you have to change everything.
Eleanor & Park is not about some kind of cool indie band or an obsolete Manhattan address (near as I can tell – someone Google Maps that), but instead about Eleanor and Park, two teenagers who ride the same bus to school. They meet when Eleanor needs a bus partner because no one wants to share a seat with the new girl, especially if she’s weird. Park basically yells at her to sit down with him, and then slowly over a few weeks of Eleanor reading comics over Park’s shoulder, they become friends. Eleanor is not only weird, she’s massively poor (although one can make the argument that being poor makes her weird – she wears a lot of boys’ clothing, but it’s heavily suggested that these are in fact the only clothes that she owns), so Park gets in the habit of lending her comics and making her mix tapes of songs he knows she’ll like (it’s 1986). He even collects all of his batteries when she worries hers will run out. If that’s not romantic, I no longer know what is.
Both kids have their fair share of home problems. Park has a nice home, happily married parents, grandparents who live right next door, a meathead younger brother. The younger brother who is of course taller than Park, because Park inherited all of his Korean mother’s genes, and is essentially known around school for being Asian, as it’s Omaha in the eighties and there aren’t really a lot of them around. Or at all. And younger brother Josh gets a lot of love from their father, who has been taking the boys to tae kwon do since practically birth, and wants them to be big and muscular and manly like he is. The most respect Park ever gets from his father is when he jump-kicks the local bully in the face for picking on Eleanor.
Eleanor, meanwhile, is just returning to her mother’s new home after being banished by her now-stepfather and crashing on a random neighbor’s couch for a year. All of her belongings, selected at random from when her mother moved out of their old house, fit in a single garbage bag. She shares a bedroom with her four younger siblings, one of whom is a baby. Their bathroom connects to the kitchen and doesn’t have a door. There is, as you’d expect, a lot of fighting and screaming, the smell of drugs, the occasional gunshot waking Eleanor up in the middle of the night. As such, she keeps her relationship with Park a secret, terrified of what stepdad Richie might do. Kick her out again? Something worse? In any case, Eleanor is getting picked on at school for being poor and redheaded and weird. Someone keeps writing disgusting, sexual things on her book covers. There are maxi pads taped to her locker, her clothes end up in the toilet. But her seeming ability to look past this (though completely faked) is what draws Park to her, even though he worries associating with her will bring the school bullies down on him. And there is of course the bit where he’s a little ashamed, even if only deep down, to be seen with her.
I was expecting this to end in violence; in my experience, books about troubled relationships tend to end with something spectacularly bad happening, and Rowell had already well established that stepdad Richie Trout was an unhinged dude (with a name like Richie Trout, you’d have to be). I was right in that something bad did go down, but in some ways it was much, much worse than I was expecting. In the early days when they were both still on air, any time Jerry Orbach and Jesse L. Martin from Law & Order showed up on Law & Order SVU, they commented on the difficulty of the latter detectives’ work because they had to deal with living victims, not homicides. In some ways, homicide is easier to swallow, in its own twisted way, because death is a part of life and we can always mentally equip ourselves for it. We cannot mentally equip ourselves for predators or abuse or the continued failure of those who are supposed to protect us. Throughout the book I kept wanting to scream at the guidance counselor, who neither guided nor counseled, who offered hugs when what Eleanor needed was a toothbrush because she didn’t own one. The failure of all of the adults in this novel was frustrating, because while they seem to notice some things wrong in Eleanor’s life, and try, they don’t really do anything useful (like call the cops). They’re all waiting for Eleanor to make a call that anything’s okay to do, and while she’s intelligent, she’s also still a child, and maybe isn’t the right person to make that decision. What’s more, she’s reticent both as a trait and out of a sense of self-preservation, so I don’t think anyone around her realizes the depth of the wrongness in her life. So it’s pretty easy to get frustrated with Eleanor, too.
Park, for his part, is the appropriately encouraging and supportive boyfriend, even if some of what he does is motivated by his own sense of self-preservation in terms of saving face in front of his classmates and judgmental father. But the majority of his actions are committed out of his love for Eleanor, including his final act of loving something so much he sets it free. Both he and Fangirl‘s love interest Levi seem to carry the message that it is perfectly fine to be whoever you are, but it is also perfectly fine to try and share that person with the world now and again.
And to answer my initial question: I did like Fangirl more. Rowell really spent the time in crafting this thought-out world, and this world within a world, interspersing chapters of the narrative with sections both from the Simon Snow series, and Cath’s own Snow stories. (Which now leads me to wonder, does fanfiction exist for a story about fanfiction? And does Rowell have the full text of Simon Snow lying around somewhere?) I can’t argue with the point that Rowell is trying to make (that Cath’s smug professor ignores), that writing is writing and loving books is loving books.