There seem to be two streams of New Adult fiction- the racier, romance narrative (see Cora Carmack and Abbi Glines), and the darker, grittier narrative about that messy time between 18-24. Fan Girl belongs in the later category, chronicling the freshman year of an introverted fan fiction writer.
Cath and her sister Wren represent two very different first year experiences. Cath is a homebody, avoids parties and drinking, and busies herself with the world she has created for her fan fiction characters. Wren devotes herself to the storied ‘first year experience’- boys, heavy drinking, trouble at the bars, etc. Both girls realize that they aren’t leading lives that make them happy. Though Cath struggles with the sudden re-emergence of her absentee mother, a party-hard sister, and a writing class that tests her confidence, she also gets her first taste of true love with the weird and wacky Levi, who proves that love can exist outside of fiction.
I really hope Rainbow Rowell writes for TV some day. She has excellent dialogue and her characters are vivid and realistic, particularly the roommate from hell who turns out to be a godsend, a la Meghan in Felicity. (Remember Felicity? Sigh). I gushed about Rowell in this review of her breakout book, Eleanor & Park. ICath has a bit of the adorkable about her which I’m beginning to find tiresome in YA, but her (sometimes crippling) anxiety, desire to succeed, longing for home and all that is familiar and therefore safe, not to mention her social awkwardness are relate-able and essential to the story. This is what New Adult should be about.
Fan Girl reminded me a lot of (You) Set Me On Fire and Just One Day– which also brought back some of the more unpleasant memories of my own undergrad experience and made me thank the stars that I am no longer back there. Two weeks ago St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia made international headlines with an offensive frosh week chant that was basically a recipe for rape. I won’t give the incident any more of my time or energy, but if you want some context you can read about it here.
It made me wonder if these quality new adult titles that delve into the murkier bits of the post-secondary experience are a response (or perhaps an antidote) to the many mixed messages, rape and hazing cultures that exist in our academic institutions. If so, these books can be extremely powerful. Don’t get me wrong- of COURSE there are nice guys and non-alcoholics and happy people at university. But it is also the first place many young people run smack into depression, anxiety, debt and relationship issues, either personally or through a friend, roommate, or peer.
Fan Girl was a bit rangy, and there were parts that dragged for me. Additionally, as much as I love the fan fiction angle and I think Rowell raises a lot of great points about that world, I could do without the excerpts from Cath’s Simon Snow fan fiction. The problem with fan fiction is that if you don’t know the world or the characters upon which it’s based, it’s a lot more work to engage. Considering that Simon Snow doesn’t exist except in the world except for these quotations, it didn’t resonate with me. I stopped reading them altogether and I don’t think I did myself any disservice. I was too anxious to get back to Cath!
Books like Fan Girl and (You) Set Me on Fire and Catherine McKenzie’s Spin* offer readers a good long look at the university experience, the good and the bad. If you are skeptical about New Adult, I’d give these ones a try.
Fan Girl is available now in hardcover from St. Martin’s Press.
*If this book was published now you bet your bananas it would be as new adult