I must admit, when I first heard about this book, I was not convinced. I expected it to be poorly written, cheesy, and very much in the “girl who’s ‘not like other girls’ meets charming hot guy who solves all her problems” style that’s so typical of YA. I could not have been more wrong.
The story begins with Cath and her twin sister Wren heading off to college and facing the typical stresses of leaving home. Well, to Cath they’re stresses, to Wren they’re new and exciting opportunities to make new friends, try new things, and reinvent herself. Wren has always been the “cooler” twin, and was much better at nearly everything other than worrying about things and writing “Simon Snow” fan fiction (Cath spends most of her time doing one or both of these activities). “Simon Snow” is a fictional book series that most people, including Wren, grew out of by their teenage years. But not Cath. Instead, she discovered fan fiction, where her favorite wizarding world could be unraveled into endless alternate universes. Her favorite genre is Simon and Baz romance, a non-canon ship seemingly based on Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy. Her story “Carry On, Simon” has thousands of online fans and she befriends many of them.
When Cath arrives at University of Nebraska, she is completely and utterly terrified. Wren refused to be her roommate, wanting to branch out and become her own person, so Cath is forced to room with Reagan, who is nice enough if a bit scary, but at least she’s not around much. When she is around, though, you can be sure that Levi, Reagan’s ex boyfriend, will be there too. The one class that Cath is looking forward to is fiction writing, taught by a real novelist, who forces Cath to push herself harder than she ever has before, which is saying something considering her current living situation is with an angry stranger who has taken to forcing Cath to be social and dragging her to the cafeteria for meals.
All these new situations prove to be extremely anxiety provoking, and Cath learns to adapt in a way that is both inspirational and relatable. Central to the novel is the idea of the importance of online life versus “reality”. This is where Cath shows the most growth while still maintaining her love for the online community. When we first meet her, “Real life was something happening in her peripheral vision”, and she doesn’t confront her anxieties; she simply shoves them aside and buries her mind in the world of Simon and Baz. She has few, if any friends, and never allows herself to grow close to them. The only people who really know her are her sister and father (their mother left when they were young), whom Cath loves beyond unconditionally and as a result, worries about constantly. Although this is unhealthy, I found her relationship with them to be extremely relatable and as Cath begins to learn how to love with her whole heart, but minus some of the anxiety, she blossoms and helps readers to understand the benefits of a healthy relationship. Along with her new and improved family relationships, Cath learns how to overcome her anxieties in other social situations as well. She begins to open up and make real friends that truly value her friendship and don’t just think of her as “Wren’s sister”. There’s some romance as well, but not to worry, it’s certainly not of the “boy saves girl from all her problems and fixes everything in her life” genre. Even though she makes all these new “real friends”, she doesn’t lose sight of her love for fiction and its online world. Her friends support her fan fiction until the very end, despite the fact that they seemed to be the exact opposite of most of Cath’s readers.
There’s an incredible moment at the end of the novel where Cath’s online persona and real life collide, and despite her previous attempts to cover up one while forcing the other, Cath was never happier than in this instant. This was a beautiful moment for me because most of us know what it’s like to have a separate version of ourselves that we only reveal online, and while some people believe that that version of ourselves is somehow illegitimate, Cath proves that we are not simply our online persona or our “real life” self. Rather, we are a beautiful combination of both, and if we let ourselves unravel and allow those two versions of “self” to combine, that beauty can shine through. But perhaps Cath’s most incredible area of growth was a result of her fiction writing class with Professor Piper. After discovering Cath’s love of fan fiction and fiercely disagreeing with her, Professor Piper pushes Cath to write from her own world, rather than the world of Simon Snow. At the beginning of the book, Cath says “Sometimes writing is running downhill, your fingers jerking behind you on the keyboard the way your legs do when they can’t quite keep up with gravity,” but she discovers the writing that’s most rewarding is the uphill kind: when you struggle and struggle to keep moving your legs and they eventually reach a summit rather than a plateau. You’ll have to read “Fangirl“ to find out what happens, but for now you can take my word that it’s more magical than Simon Snow could ever be.
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