(Originally posted on my old book review blog, HilliterateBlog!)
Hi fellow readers! Alright, today I have to obsess a little bit over one of my favorite authors whom I discovered embarrassingly later than everyone else in the YA world, Rainbow Rowell. Seriously, why didn't anyone tell me how wonderful she is? (You did? I just wasn't paying attention? Oh, okay.)
But seriously, I hadn't read any of Rainbow Rowell's books until this year and now I'm hooked. I feel like I've potentially gone in a backwards sort of order, as I started with her adult novel, Attachments, and have now read everything else by her but Eleanor and Park, which is arguably Rowell's most popular and which I currently have checked out from the library. Almost there!
In the tradition of reading her works in a weird order, I read Carry On before Fangirl, and I recommend doing it the opposite way, which is how I'll be talking about them. So here we go!
Fangirl is the story of a college freshman named Cath, who is o-b-s-e-s-s-e-d with a fictional character called Simon Snow. It's pretty clear to readers that Snow is Rowell's play off of Harry Potter - he is a teenage boy at a wizarding school who is said to be a sort of "chosen one" in the world of magic (called "magicks" in his series). But more on Simon later. Cath is struggling with the college transition, like a lot of freshmen do - she is a little quiet, a little awkward. She has some family issues, like a mom who left, a dad who couldn't handle being left, and a twin sister who seems to be growing up quickly once they get to school and distancing herself from Cath in the process. All of this leaves Cath feeling alone and anxious, and she turns increasingly toward Simon Snow's world. She devotes most of her energy to writing her popular Simon Snow fan-fiction, "Carry On, Simon" - hint hint, and not enough to her classes and relationships. Readers follow Cath through her first year of college as she faces fall-outs and make-ups with her parents and sister, an aloof roommate-turned-unlikely best friend, and a boy who starts to rival Simon for her attention.
Even though I've just graduated college, I can remember what it was like to be in Cath's shoes in my late teens, which I think is what makes Fangirl the most enjoyable. When so much is shifting around you, when everyone else's interests don't seem to align with yours any more, it's natural to cling to something like Cath's Simon Snow novels. Your fictional loves are always there for you, in print, their personalities and words and actions unchanging. Cath feels safe and appreciated in the Simon Snow fandom - much more so than she does in her real life. I think a lot of introverted teens probably have a similar experience at some point or another, whether that safe space is in a book, movie, celebrity crush (hello from a former member of a dedicated Jonas Brothers fandom online presence...). Not to be too cheesy, but it pulled at the ol' heartstrings seeing how Cath learns not to be ashamed of her Simon world, but also to let it coexist with her real world relationships and experiences. I loved Fangirl because I loved and understood Cath - and what it’s like to be a "fangirl."
Which brings us to...Carry On! Throughout Fangirl, we got glimpses into the world of Simon Snow. Rowell wrote excerpts from different Simon Snow books between each of her chapters about Cath, which let readers get familiar with the magickal world with which Cath was so in love. We also got to see excerpts of Cath’s own fanfiction, "Carry On, Simon," in which she puts her own take on the characters and their relationships. In Carry On, written a few years after Fangirl, Rowell gives us a full-length novel in Cath’s vision of Simon Snow’s world. This is why I think everyone should read Fangirl first, but I still loved Carry On. The novel tells the story of Simon and his roommate Baz who, in Cath’s and therefore Rowell’s version of events, go from being mortal enemies to falling in love (and kind of simultaneously still being enemies). Simon is trying to figure out the mysterious source of a lot of the horrible events in the magickal world, known only as the Insidious Humdrum. He is also trying to figure out why his roommate hasn’t shown up this semester, and whether the two mysteries happen to be related. In the process, he learns more about Baz and about himself, and ultimately changes the magickal world forever. Dramatic, yes, but true.
I have to admit I was a little confused at first reading Carry On without having read Fangirl. I was kind of like, er, is this just thinly veiled Harry Potter fanfiction? But as I got further into it, I saw that Rowell had actually crafted her own cast of lovable characters with their own sorts of merits and flaws unlike those of Harry and his squad. I mean, hello, the two main characters are gay and fall into an intense romantic relationship. That alone sets the plot apart from the often hetero-centric world of YA literature. The events of the story also sucked me in and I felt like I grew to know the magickal world of Simon Snow as something distinctly separate from Harry Potter’s wizarding world, and there is absolutely room in my heart for both. It’s quirky, funny, and captivating - which can honestly be said for everything I’ve read by Rowell. And while Carry On and Fangirl both allude to a long series of Simon Snow books, I think Carry On works as a stand-alone novel. It somehow manages to bring us into the middle of what feels like a much larger story without being disorienting, and to conclude in a way that sufficiently ties up loose ends. I like to think that it’s the novel Cath would write.
Fangirl and Carry On are two wonderful young adult stories that I’d recommend for anyone. They do, however, come especially highly recommended for introverts, Harry Potter fans, LGBTQ+ teens who see themselves too rarely in media, anyone who loves a good love story, and of course...fangirls (and boys!).
If you’ve read either of these, let me know what you think! Also, I’m on both twitter and Instagram as @hilliterateblog if you’d like to keep up with me on the ~social~...
Until next time,