Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell, is a novel about overcoming the pain of the past. Cather Avery, a college freshman who suffers from insecurity, has channeled the difficulties of her life by writing a work of fanfiction based on her favorite young adult book series. However, real life begins to encroach on the delicate balance she created during her high school years. Her twin sister, Wren, wants some space all of a sudden, and becomes an alcoholic. Cath’s mother, Laura, wants to reestablish a relationship with her after she abandoned her and Wren. Cath’s father, Art, suffers from a manic disorder, which also impacts Cath’s life. In addition to the stress in her life, Cath dreads the end of the Simon Snow series. These are the books upon which her fanfiction is based.
Wren is the more outgoing twin, and without her, Cath feels isolated. Beyond just wanting some space, Wren no longer wants to be recognized as Cath's twin. This is a huge blow to Cath, but thankfully, an upperclassman named Reagan befriends Cath and introduces her to life at college. But even with Reagan’s support, Cath’s fall semester is a mess. She watches from a distance as Wren drinks more and more, and parties. Laura re-enters her life during this semester, after ten years of absence, and Wren seems fine with it. She befriends a boy named Nick, and they write together, but Cath later learns that he was just using her for her writing skill.
When Nick's story, which she helped him with, is selected for publication in the college literary journal, their teacher, who suspects Cath helped Nick, tells him it can only be published if he gives Cath credit. Cath refuses this offer, preventing the story from being published, and stops writing with Nick altogether. Cath misses the end of her fall semester when her father is admitted to a mental hospital. She leaves to look after him, and considers not returning to school.
However, her friendship with Levi, Reagan’s friend and ex-boyfriend, draws her back to campus for the spring semester. Wren experiences alcohol poisoning, but survives, and she and Cath become close again. Cath can finally turn her attention to her writing, with two goals in mind: She wants to finish her fanfiction novel before the Simon Snow series comes to an end in May, and she also has to turn in a final project in her creative writing class.
Cath pours all of the pain she’s experienced into that project. She writes about Laura abandoning her family. The story finally allows Cath to acknowledge her pain and stop hiding from it. As May "and the end of the Simon Snow series" draws near, Cath is able to come to peace with both her real life and the fanfiction she’s written about Simon Snow.
Coming of age is a major theme in Fangirl, and this novel can be considered a bildungsroman. At the beginning of the novel, Cath relies on the safety of writing fanfiction and on her sister’s outgoing nature, but by the end of her freshman year of college, she has learned to find her own way with new friends. Her relationship with Wren is no longer one of dependence, but of friendship. As Cath finishes her work of fanfiction, she also completes her own story, finally dealing with the pain her mother’s abandonment caused her.
Writing as a form of escape is another important theme in Fangirl. For Cath, writing her fanfiction story allows her to escape from her everyday life. From there, she starts to write with Nick, and though he uses her for her skill, she is able to learn from that experience and write a story all her own. Her writing begins as an escape, but ends up leading her to freedom by the end of her freshman year of college.
For Cath, trust is an issue, which also makes it a theme in Fangirl. Her mother’s abandonment makes it difficult for her to trust others. Wren’s decision at the start of their fall semester to separate from her, and Nick’s betrayal, further damage her ability to trust others, so that after her first semester, Cath doesn’t want to return to school. However, she does return, and learns to trust again through her friendships with Levi and Reagan, ultimately renewing her relationship with Wren.
The fourth theme woven throughout Fangirl is family dysfunction. This is a constant source of stress for Cath, whether related to her mother’s abandonment and return, Wren’s desire to strike out on her own and subsequent alcoholism, or her father, Art’s struggles with mental illness. Cath is nearly crushed by this dysfunction, until she uses her writing to accept and deal with it.
Published in 2013, Fangirl received positive criticism. Rowell has been lauded for accurately depicting fan culture, particularly the fact that fandom, according to a reviewer for Tor.com, involves more than just escapism. Entertainment Weekly praised Rowell for bringing to life both the world of fanfiction and a young protagonist’s headspace. Fangirl was selected as the inaugural book for the Tumblr book club.