I ended up just copying this into my review on Goodreads, so I'm going to just leave it here without prelude.
Well that is two five-stars that Rainbow Rowell has earned from me in the new year. It's like she digs down deep into my brain, finds a lot of random bits, and then spits them out beautifully onto paper. There are so many things I loved about this book that I don't even know how to articulate them all. First off, can we just for a minute give mad props to the author who wrote two different stories in this book? The world of Simon Snow, which was really quite interesting by itself for a way to advance the plot, and the very real world of Cath Avery and her cast of friends. Second, I have to say I read Eleanor & Park and then the very next book I read was this one, and the only things that they had in common was that her characters are all both very real and flawed, but in a simple, down to earth way. They EXIST. The two books are as different as can be: the main characters have different personalities, they have different interests, the format the book was written in was different. I guess I'm trying to say that as much as I could tell that Rainbow Rowell had a gift for word-weaving from E&P, Fangirl gave me that much more respect for her. There are some authors that every character they write are the same person, or at least their main protagonists are very similar. Not so here, and it comes off masterfully.
Now as a fanfiction writer myself, I was incredibly impressed to find a book ABOUT it, and not in an off-hand, "these weird people obsess over it" sort of way. Because let's admit it: fanfiction is a naughty word in the world of writing. It's the freaky obsessive step-child of writing. It's the elephant in the room in the internet. Here, it's out there: it's a valid expenditure of time, it's what Cath DOES. I really expected it to be turned into a lesson: Cath only writes about another world when her world sucks, and when it doesn't, she stops. But she doesn't. It's still a pastime for her, not something she does to replace her life, and there is an astonishing amount of validation there for the world of fanfiction.
Another thing I love about this book is the way she deals with mental illness. It's subtle, and it's fascinating. Cath and Wren's father is bi-polar, and he tends to play chicken with his medication, staying off of it as long as possible until it gets overwhelming, then he either gets back on it, or steps one foot further and someone intervenes. And the entire time, no one faults him for it. No one lectures about how he really should be faking it and normal, they just accept that is how he is and that is how he is dealing with it. There is no overtone of how he is betraying his family by not playing nice and taking his medication like a good adult, and that is really different than how you mostly find it. Let's look at Cath. Cath very obviously has some mental deviation: either bi-polar, like her father, or OCD, etc... and although her roommate belittles her at the beginning a bit for not getting drugs, the matter is quickly dropped and she is just allowed to BE HER and not be forced into the box of normalcy. She takes those flaws and she works around them and it all creates her personality. I love that, in order to be happy in life she doesn't have to change and be more like anyone else, she just has to open her eyes and live it the way she wants to. I could talk and talk until it makes even less sense about what I love about this concept, but it really boils down to respect. Rainbow Rowell respects her characters for just being who they are.
There are a few things I could nitpick about this book. I didn't really like the absolute redemption of Wren. I was left wanting for more about their mother and there were some things that didn't get wrapped up well in the book. It was more like it just ended, rather than having a solid finale to it. But on the other hand, it works. This book isn't about Wren, or their mother, or anyone else. It's about Cath, and one thing I've noticed about Rainbow Rowell is that she doesn't stress about the side stories. She tells THIS story, the one that's happening RIGHT NOW, and she tells it like she lived through it. And when you live something sometimes it doesn't always wrap up neatly in a bow, sitting on your doorstep waiting to be opened. It just happens, and it moves on, and more stuff happens, and you are the sum of your experiences.