I was going to reread Rainbow Rowell’s “Fangirl” after my first year of college. This had been my plan since eighth grade. Sweet and heartfelt with fast-paced dialogue, “Fangirl” was one of my favorite books in middle school — mainly because I related to Cath, the shy, nerdy, college-aged protagonist. Once I had completed a year of college, my goal was to revisit the story and see where our experiences matched up.
After spending my freshman year online at home, I held off picking up my copy of the book again. I had no point of comparison to actual college life. But recently — as my first in-person year of college drew to a close — I decided to go for it.
I was unsure of what to expect. (There are a lot of books I loved at thirteen that don’t quite hold up now.) But as I fell into the familiar rhythm of Rowell’s writing, I found myself utterly amazed by the book’s thoughtfulness and accuracy.
For those of you who weren’t on Tumblr in the early 2010s, “Fangirl” tells the story of a girl named Cath, starting her first year of college at a university in rural Nebraska. Things aren’t going great: she’s lonely, her roommate is standoffish, her dad is increasingly unstable and her prettier, constantly-partying twin sister is thriving in a separate dorm hall. The only thing Cath feels she has going for her is internet fame: she’s the author of “Carry On, Simon”, a popular fanfiction about the characters in “Simon Snow” (Rowell’s version of “Harry Potter”).
As a seventh-grader, I was mainly interested in Cath’s fanfiction. Scattered throughout the novel, it’s a kind of angst-ridden Drarry redux. (I never accused my thirteen year-old self of having interests particularly tasteful or original.) Now, rereading it at age 20, I found myself more compelled by Cath’s story itself.
In the beginning, Cath’s anxiety has taken hold of her life. Too terrified to go to the dining hall, she eats protein bars for every meal. She overthinks what to wear on the first day of classes and tiny moments in conversation. The book gets the little behaviors characteristic of social anxiety so right — while moving into her dorm, Cath refuses to make “friendly eye contact” with a girl at the sinks, too nervous to initiate that kind of social interaction. She spends Friday nights in her room alone.
There is a particularly insidious myth often casually thrown at those who are lonely, awkward or anxious in high school. It’s this: college will immediately be better. High school is something you wait out; college is where you find your people, place and popularity practically instantly. The reality isn’t so black-and-white. I remember being shocked, as a high school senior, speaking to friends who had graduated and discovering that the first couple months of college are really, really difficult.
“Fangirl” deconstructs that college myth. Rereading the book now, Cath’s behavior is deeply familiar. (I, too, moved into my dorm fall semester with two boxes of Larabars and a jar of peanut butter, nauseatingly anxious about where to eat dinner.) The shift into college life is rife with loneliness and instability. “Fangirl” acknowledges this reality rather than glossing over it. The book never looks down on Cath for her anxiety, for struggling with the things — boys, parties, dining halls — that come so naturally to her sister and her roommate. Instead, it depicts Cath’s freshman-year challenges with empathy and honesty, and, more importantly, it moves on.
Throughout the novel, Cath builds routines. One trip to the dining hall with her roommate becomes two, becomes three, becomes a pattern. Studying with a girl in her fiction writing class becomes a habit. After failing a writing assignment, she goes to office hours for the first time and learns that she has a professor’s unwavering support. She even falls in love. Cath’s college navigation is a series of tiny, realistic victories. At the end of the novel, she informs her sister that she has a roommate for the next semester with casual confidence, and I felt my heart swell.
Cath’s anxiety is a part of her. It is not something to be conquered or beaten back, but rather something she learns to balance and live with. Her character arc doesn’t end with her rushing a sorority. Instead, it ends with her feeling secure in her relationships with her sister, her roommate and her boyfriend, people who love her as she is and for who she is, anxious temperament and all. Cath displays consistent courage in an unfamiliar environment and is rewarded with authentic joy and connection. It doesn’t get much more beautiful than that.
I want to make some sort of disclaimer about how embarrassing it is for me to love this book as much now as I did at 13. Because sure, Cath submitting Simon/Baz slashfic to her creative writing professor as an official school assignment made me cringe a bit. Still, I can’t get over what rereading “Fangirl” has given me and, likely, many other readers. It provides a roadmap to finding joy, fulfillment and friends in college, even with anxiety.
The book didn’t pull punches. It acknowledged that this would be hard. And it took my hand and said we would get through it together: Cath, her box of protein bars and me.
Kate Jones PO ’24 is from Seattle, WA. Her favorite dining hall is Frank.