“There are different kinds of talent. Maybe your talent is in interpretation. Maybe you’re a stylist.”
“And you think that counts?”
“Tim Burton didn’t come up with Batman. Peter Jackson didn’t write Lord of the Rings.” [loc. 4174]
Cath is a BNF (Big Name Fan), internet-famous for writing Simon Snow slash fiction. (In Fangirl, the Simon Snow series is analogous to the Harry Potter books, of which you may have heard.) Cath, and her extrovert twin sister -- and former co-writer -- Wren, are starting college, and as Wren's path diverges from Cath's, Cath begins to realise that her life is off-balance. While Wren makes friends, gets drunk and attempts to rebuild a relationship with their mother (who walked out on September 11th, 2001), Cath becomes increasingly isolated. Her high-school boyfriend dumps her; her roommate Reagan apparently hates her; Reagan's boyfriend Levi doesn't hate her; her partner in Creative Writing, Nick, takes her suggestions on board but doesn't give much back ... and her Creative Writing tutor finds it necessary to explain the concept of plagiarism to Cath.
I'd had the impression that this novel presented the creation and reading of fanfiction as 'just a phase': fortunately, that is far from the truth. Rainbow Rowell illustrates a fanfic author's frame of mind with accuracy, sympathy and humour. Everything from the pressure of readers' comments to the joy of writing in a familiar world to the fear of not finishing a work-in-progress before canon catches up ... Cath is pretty open about her fic-writing, which lets Rowell cover a range of responses that many fanfiction types will recognise: the girl in the library who gushes about 'Magicath' without realising it's Cath's nom de plume; the guy who extricates himself from a relationship with the immortal words, 'You have stronger feelings for Baz and Simon'.
A lot of the story is about Cath's writing -- fanfiction and original fiction -- and her gradual relaxation into college life, complete with friends and boyfriends and interaction. (Early on she says "There are other people on the Internet. It’s awesome. You get all the benefits of ‘other people’ without the body odor and the eye contact." [loc. 1951]. I can relate.) But weaving through that is the story of Cath's family: Wren's increasingly wild behaviour, their father's bipolar disorder, their absent mother, and Cath's inability to communicate with any of them.
Cath's story is punctuated by excerpts from Simon Snow canon (as by 'Gemma T. Leslie') and Cath's own fanfiction, both perfectly convincing, and definitely comparable to Rowling-level canon and HP fan-writing. Just one niggle: this is a universe in which the Harry Potter books are also a Thing (as evinced by a throwaway comment), but it seems unlikely that two very similar series could co-exist.
Fangirl is a very enjoyable read for anyone who's active, as reader or writer or both, in the world of fanworks. I imagine it's especially engaging for Harry Potter fans: I'm pretty sure there are a lot of allusions and references I missed. It's also an intriguing novel about growing up and leaving home, and a convincing portrait of a socially-awkward teenager. Recommended.