I ended up liking this book a lot more than I expected to. I loved Rainbow Rowell’s other two books, but I was pretty sure this one wouldn’t be as good as Eleanor & Park. I expected something a little rougher around the edges, and I suppose that’s what I got. But this book also has a lot of heart to it, and a strong, complex main character who you’ll wish you knew in real life (and who I suspect strongly mirrors Rowell herself).
Cath and her twin sister Wren are heading off to their first year at a university in Nebraska. Cath is devastated that her twin sister doesn’t want to live with her. Wren thinks they need to grow and meet new people, but Cath is a lot more socially dysfunctional than her sister and doesn’t know how she’ll manage. On top of that, she’s worried about leaving their manic depressive father home alone (their mother left them years ago).
My first year at a university was over 20 years ago, but this book took me right back to those days. The classes, the parties, the growing apart from friends, the cramped dorm rooms with no privacy, the crazy roommates, drinking too much, the campus library where there seems to be more sexual activity than actual reading – it’s all here. That, and the most important thing, which is that college lets you reinvent yourself, or at least figure out who you are.
I loved Cath’s character and I also appreciated that Rowell stayed away from black and white characterizations of Cath’s sister, her roommate, and her roommate’s boyfriend. Okay, so maybe Levi is just a little too nice. To be honest, I liked Cath’s prickly roommate the most. That says something about me, I guess. In all of her books, Rowell makes you feel you’re reading about real people. A good example is the part where Cath throws herself an “Emergency Kanye Dance Party” in her room when things get rough, a ritual she used to have with her sister.
I also loved that this was a book about writing. Cath is a dedicated writer of Simon Snow fanfiction, which is basically Harry Potter with name changes. She’s writing, chapter by chapter, a really successful online novel. The problem is that her love of fan fiction is keeping her from writing original fiction. Simon Snow and his world feels like home to her, and she doesn’t see why she should write in any other world, even though no one around her can understand.
The problem I had with this book was all the pseudo-Harry Potter stuff, and the concept of fanfiction itself. I have to admit, I don’t get people’s need to rewrite other people’s characters, and I myself have no interest in reading it. But Rowell managed to make me more sympathetic to the idea. Interestingly creating her own Potter-like world, Rowell manages to play on the very thing her character is dealing with — what it means to take another living author’s characters and mold them into who you want them to be. Still, I thought the book suffered a bit from too many “Simon Snow” excerpts, which, while clever, distracted from the real story.
But I have to say, I really empathized with Cath and appreciated the journey she takes in this book. I found myself rooting for her the whole way, anxious for her to make her way in college, find a real relationship, and repair the battered relationship she has with her sister. This book touched on a lot of things I find meaningful, from sister relationships to social awkwardness to the love of writing and reading.
I wasn’t expecting as much from this novel, but it really exceeded my expectations. I would definitely recommend it.