Cath is a freshman at college, living for the first time without her twin or her fragile, unstable father who she can’t stop worrying about. Instead of living the wild college life, Cath prefers to stay in her room, writing Simon Snow fan fiction but, of course, there soon come confusions in the form of her older roommate, Reagan, her friend Levi and a Fiction Writing classmate, Nick.
“A coming-of-age tale of fan fiction, family and first love.”
That description sums the book up perfectly: Cath’s story feels relevant to anyone who is growing up in any way, but especially to college/university girls. The fan fiction represents her need to separate herself off from the real world into a place where she feels more comfortable, and so it is symbolic each time she disregards it for something else. It’s fairly self-explanatory why family and first love are both such relevant and important subject matters, but the way they’re tied in so painstakingly and often heart-renderingly here is what makes it special.
Cath is the most likeable and relatable protagonist I’ve encountered since Hazel in The Fault In Our Stars. She has a passion – Simon Snow, the magician series – and she doesn’t let anyone bring her down for it. She’s always been the quieter twin, so when Wren wants to live separately in college, she struggles to work out how to live normally there. It’s totally normal to be nervous at the beginning of college, and even though Cath might take it to an extreme, some of her thoughts have almost definitely occurred to all of us.
In fact, this anxiety that threatens to eat her up at several different points in the book is completely admirably written and means that those who feel similarly to Cath can feel relieved that they’re not alone, and those who know nothing about anxiety can begin to understand it. People are often told to just stop over-thinking things, but obviously it’s often not that simple when your stomach is in a thousand knots.
Similarly, the treatment of Cath’s dad and his manic behaviour is accessible to all, and surely reassuring to those who recognise his symptoms. We understand why Cath can’t stop worrying about him, and are relieved along with her when he’s jogging and eating well. It’s almost like Cath has had to grow up too quickly and that’s why she can’t relax and be young at college, but this turns around once her dad enlists her grandma’s help and she gets more of a life herself.
Despite everything that Wren puts Cath through, we can’t help but like her too. The twin bond comes across so strongly on the page regardless of their differences that we need them to make up, even though Wren has the ability to drive us mad too. Her blasé approach to landing in hospital reminds us (and their dad!) that it’s really not so bad if Cath doesn’t want to go out with friends a lot and it’s a pleasure to finally see them close again towards the end of the book.
Thanks to Cath’s fan fiction (and her love-hate relationship with the Fiction Writing class) writing is a force of the story by itself. At times, we receive a careful examination of the art of writing and, in chapter two, we even hear a list of many reasons why authors may want to write; this also provides an early examination of Cath, as she so desperately wants to escape into another world. She experiences writer’s block as well as serious rushes of inspiration, both of which are significant to her frame of mind. The way writing can represent a person is a fascinating and exciting device to see used.
“Sometimes writing is running downhill, your fingers jerking behind you on the keyboard the way your legs do when they can’t quite keep up with gravity.”
And finally, onto Levi. If I didn’t already have a boyfriend, I’d tell you that Levi is the perfect man and I’d settle for no one less. Luckily, they actually share quite a lot of similarities, so I don’t have to do anything drastic. (Kidding!)
The way that each of Levi’s (almost constant) smiles are described means that it is easy to smile along with him and it feels even more momentous when he stops smiling. Despite his one blip, he is as generous, selfless, romantic and friendly as a love interest can get. Considering it’s not even clear for a while if he is the main interest (or if he’ll be first, at least), it’s interesting to look back and see how cleverly the groundwork on his feelings was laid, and the amount of Levi we are given later on is a happy surprise.
The device of using Simon Snow extracts between chapters (both from the “real” author and from Cath’s fan fiction) reflects Cath’s current way of thinking in a subtle and clever way; there are some things said there that she would struggle to convey in her own thoughts, words or actions. For example, a quote to reflect the times she clutches Levi or Wren’s hands:
“And sometimes you held somebody’s hand just to prove that you were still alive, and that another human being was there to testify to that fact.”
I don’t normally like constricting myself with star ratings, but this is definitely a 5/5. No other book has struck me so strongly since The Fault In Our Stars (although thankfully Fangirl is less emotionally distressing!)
As well as Kanye West (obviously!), The Lumineers provide the perfect emotional and musical soundtrack for Cath and Levi.