Cath Avery, heroine of Rainbow Rowell's "Fangirl," does not do well with change. Unfortunately, at the moment, she can't get away from it.
Cath is heading off to college, and she's worried about having to meet new people. She's worried about leaving her adored dad, who's manic-depressive and doesn't do well on his own. And she's worried because her twin sister, Wren, is suddenly acting oddly distant, and doesn't want to room with her at school.
The one constant in Cath's turbulent life is her writing. To be specific, her fanfiction. Cath is a huge fan of the Simon Snow books (which sound a lot like the Harry Potter series) and has made something of an online name for herself by writing multi-chapter fanfic about them.
But while she finds comfort in this creative outlet and in the positive feedback it brings her, Cath is about to discover that college writing classes are going to ask something more of her -- something she's not sure she's prepared to give.
Rowell, the author of "Eleanor & Park," has once again created a world full of relatable, likable characters with realistic problems. We feel for Cath when, afraid to face a dining hall full of strangers, she crouches in her dorm room munching on power bars and typing feverishly away on her laptop. We root for her as she learns to handle her insecurities and fears, starts making friends despite herself, and takes hesitant steps toward maturity. And we sympathize with her as she agonizes over her dad's mental illness, watches her sister spiral out of control, and deals with the return of the mother who left her when she was a child.
Rowell treats Cath and her dilemmas, both major and minor, with her trademark warmth, sensitivity, and humor. And she fills Cath's world with people who may seem daunting at first, but turn out to be unexpectedly kind -- like her brusque roommate, Reagan, and Reagan's ex-boyfriend Levi, a farm kid with an unexpected and appealing touch of old-fashioned chivalry about him.
However, it must be noted that at times, this world can also be a fairly gritty place. Most of her college students are living like most real-life 21st-century college students, with all that entails. Like "Eleanor & Park," the book is full of profanity. Cath's sister, Wren, gets into a bad crowd, and ends up in the hospital after a night of binge drinking. And there are some descriptions of heavy makeout sessions between Cath and the boy she starts dating about halfway through the book. It's strongly implied that they end up in a sexual relationship near the end of the story.
There's another major plot element that needs to be looked at in more depth. Cath's fanfiction, as I mentioned, plays a significant role in the story. (The title of the book, "Fangirl," comes from her heavy involvement in reading and writing about the Simon Snow series.) As many fanfiction writers do, Cath writes what's known as "slash." That is, she's taken two male characters from the book and turned them into homosexual lovers.
We have, therefore, the rather disconcerting scenario of a shy young woman with little romantic experience (at least at the beginning), who spends much of her time writing love scenes between two guys. Not explicit sexual descriptions, she's quick to specify -- which seems to argue a certain naivete on her part about the whole idea of gay romance. But definitely love scenes. The various people around her have a wide range of reactions to this -- her family is used to it (and her sister collaborates with her at times), her roommate thinks it's weird, her sister's boyfriend finds it distasteful. (One thing Rowell does well is to write people with different opinions on various issues and make them look reasonable -- almost a lost art these days.) But for Cath, it's become second nature.
Here's a conversation between Cath and Wren as Cath is thinking about having sex for the first time:
"Think about how many beautiful first times you've written for Simon and Baz."
"That's totally different," Cath said dismissively. "They don't even have the same parts."
Wren started giggling and then couldn't stop. She hugged the laptop to her chest. "You're more comfortable with their parts than--" She couldn't stop giggling. "--your own and . . . and you've never even seen their parts. . . ."
"I try to write around it." Cath was giggling, too.
"I know," Wren said, "and you do a really good job."
Anyone who's at all familiar with the world of fanfiction knows that this kind of "slash" has come to dominate it. It's not the only kind of fanfiction there is, but there's a lot of it around.
It's troubling to see even very young writers taking fictional relationships of all kinds from books, shows, and movies, including friendships and even family relationships, and sexualizing them. And just as we see in "Fangirl," writers and readers egg each other on to create more and more of it. The trend brings to mind C. S. Lewis's famous quote about those who see homosexuality everywhere they turn: "Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love, but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros, betray the fact that they have never had a Friend." The passage has never been more relevant. (It gains extra relevance here, when one looks at how Cath uses her fanfiction to help smother her own loneliness.)
This sexualization among the grassroots of the culture is certainly a trend that parents should be aware of. But it may not be a trend that they want their kids becoming aware of just yet, at least not without careful parental guidance (assuming that their kids aren't already aware of it behind their backs!). This means that most Christian parents will probably want to treat "Fangirl" with discretion.
Image copyright St. Martin's Griffin. Review copy purchased from Barnes & Noble.
Gina Dalfonzo is editor of BreakPoint.org and Dickensblog.
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