All posts in: an ode to

01 Feb 2014

more reasons to love fangirl

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl was one of my favorite books of 2013. Along with the rest of the reading public. I know.

Why bother to heap even more praise on a book that’s had plenty? Well, I just re-read it, and there was just so much to love that I didn’t get to tell you about the first time. Indulge me.


Coming of Age… as an adult


Alright. I guess we can talk about New Adult again for a moment. I am still a skeptic of this supposedly burgeoning literary genre. I don’t think it is appropriate or accurate to give every book about an 18-24 year old a particular label. I think genre traditions and definitions run deeper than “age of characters” – slapping on an age-based descriptor regardless of other narrative factors ignores genre traditions and can mislead readers.

Is Fangirl New Adult? Is it Adult? Is it YA? A big part of Fangirl’s wide attention is that it does sit squarely in that area of Adult/YA crossover. Cath is a character with broad introverted, nerdy girl appeal, regardless of the age of said nerd.

But the book’s YA-ness is really hard to deny. What Rowell has done is write a very traditional coming of age romance and set it in the very beginnings of adulthood. Although Cath is a grown up, her story feels about as YA as YA gets.

I would argue that Rowell achieves this in part because she grounds Cath’s story inside of another story – the Simon Snow series. Simon Snow – the focus of Cath’s creative attention for years – is a (meta?) fictionalized Harry Potter. Which is a work of children’s/YA literature, and also a school story. Set against these two touchstones, Cath’s move to college feels more like a move to boarding school than an exodus into adulthood – like she’s moving out of the space of childhood but clearly hasn’t left yet.

The meta-fictional contrast between Hogwarts, Simon Snow, and state college is a unique and ingenious narrative tactic, regardless of what label you want to slap on the book.


Oh, Cath


But what I really think separates Fangirl from the traditions of adult literature is Cath – more specifically, how Rowell lets Cath steer the story.

I have read a handful of books about college students written for an adult market. All of these books have been decidedly about college as an institution, about learning and knowledge and power. About the place of higher education in the world and in the lives of individual students. The characters may be interesting and well-developed, but they also feel a little like pawns in some kind of grander allegory.

Last year I read Rebecca Harrington’s Penelope. I talked a little bit about it in this post. Like Fangirl, Penelope is about a shy, nerdy girl who feels socially awkward while she dive into her first year of college. Like Cath, Penelope faces new social situations, romances, and experiences the triumphs and pitfalls of becoming an independent adult-type student.

Comparing only premise and plot, it would seem that these two books are quite similar. Readalikes, maybe. But I would argue that Penelope the book is not about Penelope the character. Penelope the book is about Harvard. It is about cultural, intellectual, and social capital amongst 18 to 22-year-olds. It is about various collegiate rituals and requirements and how absurd they are when observed from a distant lens. Penelope stands in for any girl, her quirks, traits, and desires tailored to fit the needs of certain metaphors, to elucidate a larger Big Idea.

Fangirl does explore a fair amount of Big Ideas – most of them about art and authenticity and what sacrifices are required to divine out your own passion and abilities at the tender age of 18 – but ultimately, the story is about Cath. It’s not an extended metaphor starring an awkward young coed – it’s a story about a specific awkward young coed with metaphors thrown in for set dressing.

And I think my previous post pretty much sums up why Cath is a character worth caring about. At least if you are an introverted nerd girl. After a recent twitter exchange, it has come to my attention that Cath may in fact be an INFJ. This explains my personal affection toward her – as an INFJ, I feel a special kinship with most of my Myers-Briggs mates.

This has also opened the door to literary Myers-Briggs speculations. This is probably not a particularly useful way to spend one’s critical energy, but I’m afraid once you’ve fallen down a rabbit hole it can be difficult to climb out.


The Craft

Ms. Rowell’s writing is slick. It’s the kind of narrative that almost slips under the story and the excellent dialog – you almost don’t notice it, but you are enjoying it. I feel like some of Ms. Rowell’s critics do not give her adequate credit for her writing chops. It’s like that whole “I don’t want to look like I’m wearing make-up so I will wear seven times as much make-up as anyone else to achieve the all-natural look,” thing. Or watching women’s gymnastics. It takes a lot of skill and a lot of work to make prose read easy.

In Fangirl, Rowell’s tight third-person narrative shows off her skill for the descriptive simile.


Cath put on brown cable-knit leggings and a plaid shirtdress that she’d taken from Wren’s dorm room. Plus knit wristlet thingies that made her think of gauntlets,like she was some sort of knight in crocheted armor.

Cath set the phone on her desk and leaned back away from it. Like it was something that would bite.

But Cath didn’t worry about Reagan, not like she worried about Wren. Maybe because Reagan looked like the Big Bad Wolf – and Wren just looked like Cath with a better haircut.

“You look like you need some fresh air.”

“Me?” Cath gagged on her pot roast sandwich. “You look like you need fresh DNA.”

Reagan wore eyeliner all the way around her eyes. Like a hard-ass Kate Middleton.

Clever, yes. Entertaining, yes. But oh, please do not dismiss these lines as set dressing. Lines such as these channel Cath’s point of view into the third person narration. They capture something about the scene and about Cath’s attitude toward it, and Rowell knows just when to employ one. This is the kind of genius comedic writing I fear my puny brain could never manufacture. This is why Rowell is deserving of her heaps of praise, even though her prose is more straightforward that literary, even if she’s writing love stories.

I could go on. Oh, I could. But we’ve reached 1000 words of Fangirl-love, and guess who just got an e-galley of Landline today. Me. ME. I have got reading to do.

Image credit to the imminently talented Simini Blocker. If you haven’t checked out her work yet, please do. She’s like my patron saint of YA fan art. Run quickly. And while you are at it, hire her to illustrate all the picturebooks ever. This chick is going places.

18 Apr 2013

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Have I ever told you about this book? One of my all-time favorite books? This book I once tried to read while driving 70 mph up US-127 North? No? Yes? Either way, consider this an ode to The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart.

Frankie is a sophomore at an academically elite boarding school. She is a normal girl – smart and ambitious compared to some of her schoolmates, but normal. Over the summer, puberty arrives and she becomes a fairly hot girl. When she returns to Alabaster, her new-found hotness lures in Matthew Livingston – senior BMOC (do people still use this acronym/phrase?) – who finds her sexy, adorable, and good company. Life would be good for Frankie, but when Matthew ditches her to partake in purposely vague activities with his group of guy friends – guy friends who she likes and who like her – she can’t help but feel jealous. And suspicious. And curious. One night she follows Matthew and finds out they are part of a longstanding, all-male society.

Frankie can’t figure out why her chromosomes prevent her from joining the group, but they won’t even talk about it, much less let her in. So why not just infiltrate their ranks from afar and trick the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds into perpetrating acts of art-protest-chaos across Alabaster’s conservative campus?

Why not, Frankie? Why not.

I suspect that a plot summary alone might be enough to convince you to read. This is an incredible concept for a work of contemporary young adult realism – (Traditional boarding school tale + urban exploration  + secret societies) to the power of (the patriarchy + social philosophy). Oh, and in case that’s not enough, there’s the Frankie and Matthew romance, which is actually an incredibly subtle love triangle. This is a tightly written, quick-paced romp of a story that somehow captures everything else I just mentioned. A work of literary genius, basically.

But that is not why I have an undying love for this book, why it’s one of my favorite books of all time, why I could read it over and over and over again without questioning my judgement for a moment.

I love this book because it’s a book about a teenage girl who cares about boys and clothes and friends, but she also does stuff.

E. Lockhart has a way with this kind of character. I said it twice already – Frankie is normal – but in the world of teen girls in YA novels, she’s unique in that she’s not quite so interested whether she’s getting along with her mom/brother/boyfriend/crush/best friend. She does care about that stuff, but there are bigger questions going on in Frankie’s head. If she has a weird interaction with her sister on the phone, she doesn’t spend a chapter stewing over their relationship, she hangs up the phone and rolls her eyes and gets on with her life. When Matthew doesn’t let her touch his china Basset Hound and gets weird about it, she doesn’t start a fight or mope or have internal debates about their relationship: she makes an assessment and uses that information to better understand how power works in his secret society. Frankie is practical. She makes things happen. It’s a refreshing thing to read.

I love this book because Ms. Lockhart’s writing is a thing to behold.

I appreciate her skill more with every re-read. This most recent read, The Boy sat with me on the couch while I was reading. I asked him if he wanted me to read a little to him and he humored me. It was the scene with Porter and Frankie at the snack shack, where Frankie verbally abuses Porter because, well, he is her ex-boyfriend who cheated on her and deserves some retroactive verbal abuse. Anyway, the scene was 100% dialogue, and I was reading both parts aloud.

It started off awkward, but after a few paragraphs it was like, the words carried me into some kind of High School Theater Flashback – there were intonations and gestures and I think The Boy got a phone call in the middle of the scene so I stopped but then picked right back up once he hung up because the tension between Frankie and Porter was just in my apartment at that point. We had to finish it up.

That is some damn good dialogue. Just saying.

I love this book because the final scene between Matthew and Frankie? Kills me.

I don’t want to spoil anything, so stop reading now if you are super-concerned… but the place that Frankie and Matthew end up at the end of the story is just this raw, awful moment when you realize that the person who you thought knew you the best has no idea – no idea – what you are, who you are, how you are. And never has. You’ve been alone the whole time. God. It’s an intense scene and Lockhart nails it.

And most of all, I love this book because Frankie is an anti-heroine. A fifteen-year-old girl bad-ass anti-heroine.

I’ve been reading the first few chapters of John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, which is all about developing ideas into stories. The starting place is your protagonist. According to Truby, what makes a story a story is your heroine’s weakness. She needs to make certain changes in her life in order to overcome this weakness – changes that are internal are psychological needs, changes that have to do with how your heroine treats others are moral needs. All of this adds up to a problem that the heroine faces that drives the rest of the story. Once the heroine addresses her weakness through her psychological and moral needs, then she can solve the problem and the story’s end is satisfying.

I’ve tried to apply this model to Frankie and it just doesn’t fit. Frankie isn’t without faults – she’s pushy, she’s not always a good friend, she’s obsessive, she’s manipulative. Some of those could be psychological and moral needs… but the story doesn’t end with Frankie learning to treat others better. In fact, Lockhart does this genius thing where you are pretty sure that all of Frankie’s faults would be strengths if she was a boy, and that her problems aren’t really her problems, but side effects of the patriarchal power structures in the way men treat women, in her boarding school, and in the world.


Well, now you all think I’m crazy. But you know what? Everyone thought Frankie was crazy, too. Just read the book already, okay??