7 Reasons Why I Love Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl

Image property of Rainbow Rowell, Noelle Stevenson, and St. Martin's Pres

Image property of Rainbow Rowell, Noelle Stevenson, and St. Martin’s Pres

SPOILER ALERT: Reveals plot points from the novel

In the second half of 2013, I became aware of Rainbow Rowell and her new young adult novel, Fangirl. At the time, I was following Gingerhaze (aka Noelle Stevenson) on Tumblr, and she did the cover art for it. I’ve never considered myself a fangirl and certainly never lost my shit over Harry Potter (which obviously inspired the book), so I wasn’t immediately interested in it. I’ve also encountered my fair share of fans, many of whom can be shortsighted and obstinate in their defense of their favs – sometimes to the point of violence. Still, I wanted to support Gingerhaze, and I thought it might be a fun, quick read. Just shy of two years later, I now own a hardback copy of it and have just finished reading it for the third time. I’ve also read all of Rainbow Rowell’s other books and am seriously considering reading Carry On, which is essentially the Harry Potter-esque story from Fangirl and (until very recently) my least favorite part of the book.

Fangirl means so much to me and inspires me to be a better person, girlfriend, and writer. It immediately cheers me up and picks me up when I’m feeling down and reminds me to be both a strong and kind person, so, in honor of it, here are 7 Reasons Why I Love Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.

  1. The well-written crippling anxiety of being in a new place with new people. While most people would think I’m a confident person, I’ve never faired well in new places surrounded by new people. When I went to college, I spent the first week with severe stomach pains and the inability to be around my roommate and her new boyfriend. If they were up late talking, I’d sit in the hallway reading and trying to keep it together. I withdrew a lot, and it took a great amount of effort to pull myself back out, so Cath’s (the main character, our eponymous fangirl) first semester anxiety resonated with me, both reminding me what it felt like and how far I’d come.
  2. Reagan is my favorite character. Reagan is Cath’s roommate and is described as, “She did everything so forcefully. She swung their door open; she slammed it shut. She was bigger than Cath, a little taller and a lot more buxom (seriously, buxom). She just seemed bigger. On the inside too,” and “Even though she was bigger than most girls – big hips, big chest, wide shoulders – she carried herself like she was exactly the size everyone else wanted to be. And everyone else went along with it.” She’s confident, fearless, and direct, but she’s also a really good person, confronting Cath about her anxiety early on and basically forcing her out of her room. She’s someone that Cath can be herself with and someone she never has to be nervous around. Their first two interactions in chapter four always make me smile because it’s obvious how much Reagan cares. I need a Reagan in my life.
  3. Nick, the writing partner. As we will eventually learn [SPOILER ALERT], Nick is not a super nice guy. In fact, he’s basically an asshole, but for the first half of the book he fulfills a fantasy I’ve always had: having a writing partner. Nick and Cath are assigned to write together and do so in the library, literally pulling a notebook back and forth between them. Afterwards, they hang out once or twice a week to repeat the process, even though they don’t have an assignment. When I first read about that, I was filled with envy. As most writers know, writing can be lonely. You usually have to carve out a niche for yourself away from everyone and sit by yourself as you hear your roommates and family having fun together. I’ve never collaborated with someone on writing, sat write next to them as we created something together. I wanted that. So bad. And now I have a template for what it could be like and inspiration to try to achieve it.
  4. Professor Piper’s writing advice. Professor Piper is my least favorite character in this book. She is showy and pretentious, often doing things like posing dramatically at windows before giving her warnings and saying things like “There’s nothing more profound than creating something out of nothing… Think about it, Cath. That’s what makes a god – or a mother. There’s nothing more intoxicating than creating something from nothing. Creating something from yourself.” Honestly, these are the kind of antics I would expect from a freshman writer, not a tenured professor. However, she is very supportive of her students and is willing to let Cath make up a story, which where we see more of her than just the pretentious writer-teacher. In fact, she really comes alive in chapter 26 when she drops this gem: “I take something that happened to me in 1983, and I make it happen to somebody else in 1943. I pick my life apart that way, try to understand it better by writing straight through it.” While this is similar to the “write what you know” cliché, it offers an invaluable starting point that a lot of advice neglects. It tells you where the starting line is and lets you go from there. It’s actually been very helpful when I’ve encountered a block, and I’m grateful to have it.
  5. Well-written family crises. Whenever most people write or show family crises, they never seem to have first-hand knowledge of one. Everything is always shouting and hyperbole that is either never resolved or always Suddenly, years of hurt feelings and bad relationships end because a side character comes in and shows them the importance of family. That doesn’t happen here. When Cath and Wren (Cath’s twin sister) fight about drifting apart, it’s not even remotely resolved for almost a year – and that’s because both have grown and changed in that time. When Cath’s dad suffers from a manic episode that lands him in the hospital, it’s understood that this is a part of a life-long pattern that will probably happen again in the future – but that that’s okay. When Cath’s distant, shitty mom briefly comes back into the scene, she’s still shown as distant and shitty, resenting that she has to interact with them at all but also acting like a martyr because she’s willing to inconvenience herself slightly. Some people are bad people while others simply make bad choices or react badly. It’s refreshing to see nuanced family relationships that aren’t all about “live and let live.”
  6. Loved ones treating each other well. While Levi (Cath’s love interest) is not my favorite character and I honestly think he says and does many dumb/illogical/patronizing things, I still love the way he treats Cath. He always makes time for her, always seeks her out, fits her into his schedule and fits himself into hers, encourages her, loves whatever she loves, and is always there for her. He’s there for an Emergency Kanye Party when she’s had a bad day. He’s there to pick up her sister at a bar and take Cath out for food to talk. He’s there when her dad is hospitalized, even though they’re pseudo-fighting. He’s there for another Wren emergency, even though he had to drive six hours and almost miss a family event. He wants her to know she’s special and that he loves her and that none of her “problems” – anxiety, introspection, a dramatic family – matter to him. He brings up issues that might be painful like how Wren might not like him or that Cath might be ashamed of him. He is in many ways very sweet, and he reminds me to be sweet to my loved ones.
  7. The love scenes between Levi and Cath. While most of the interactions are actually quite innocent (nothing more than kissing), Rainbow Rowell writes them in a way that is both incredibly sweet and pretty damn erotic. When they first kiss, it’s because, “He nudged his nose against hers, and their mouths fell sleepily together, already soft and open.” “Levi’s kisses were all taking. Like he was drawing something out of her with soft little jabs of his chin.” When they next kiss, they’re constantly talking with each other, telling each other how much they like each other and where. Cath “closed her eyes and kissed him below his chin, behind his jaw, where he was soft and almost chubby, like a baby. He arched his neck, and it was even better than she’d hoped. ‘I like you,’ she said. ‘So much. I like you here.’” The scenes are vivid and life-like, reminding me what it felt like and how I acted when I first began dating my girlfriend. They remind me what’s still there, even when I’m too stressed out to see it.

Rainbow Rowell’s writing is deceptive. Her plots are usually pretty fluffy – falling in love, finding a boyfriend, pitching microwaveable lunch foods – and her writing is straightforward, lacking grandiose descriptions or sweeping abstract assertions. At first, she seems like a guilty pleasure akin to a Harlequin romance, but then you realize just how deep her writing penetrated. You’re smiling and re-reading her books. You’re thinking about the characters and comparing them to people you know. You’re wondering what happened next and drawing fanart. You’re writing more than you have in years, and it’s because she’s showing you what writing is supposed to be. You’re supposed to write the stories you want to see. You’re supposed to write about what interests you. You’re not supposed to be hung up on, “Could this be the next Great American Novel? Will I be remembered for hundreds of years?” You’re just supposed to be telling stories and writing them down so others can enjoy them. And, although that didn’t make the list, that’s ultimately why I love Rainbow Rowell’s writing and Fangirl. She reminded me of how fun writing can be, and that is truly why I read her work.

Beautiful Darkness: The Horrifyingly Beautiful Fairy Tale

Beautiful_Darkness_Cover

Spoiler and Trigger Warning: discussions of a child’s death, violence, and generally telling you exactly what is going to happen in this book

The purview of fairy tales is to teach us lessons through a deep, abiding sense of horror. We know that the wicked never prosper because Cinderella’s stepmother had to dance in a pair of red-hot shoes and her stepsisters had their feet mutilated. We know that the greatest beauty is grotesque as shown by Snow White’s blood red lips, snow-white skin, coal black hair, and the fact that she is lusted after when she is yet a child. We know that children’s innocence and naiveté have an end date because the Big Bad Wolf (and other Big Bad Wolves) are constantly waiting to attack and defile the Little Red Riding Hoods of the world. And these are things that we know and know unquestioningly throughout our lives because of the fairy tales we read as children.

Beautiful Darkness is just one such fairy tale.

Beautiful Darkness is a graphic novel adapted from the story by Marie Pommepuy and Fabien Vehlmann and illustrated by Kerascoët. The fairy tale starts like most do: life is peaceful and idyllic for Aurora, her prince Hector, and her good, loyal friend Plim. Then, out of no where and against all fairy tale logic, something horrifying happens. The walls and ceiling drip and coalesce in great, red globs, forcing the trio to run, split up, and burrow through the ceiling into the rainy night. All around Aurora, other people are burrowing up from their home into the rain, grasping hands, cowering under leaves, crying, and abandoning ship. And that is when we learn that their home is actually the body of a dead little girl.

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It does not get much better after this.

Dozens of little people pour from the dead girl’s body, but by the end of the book there is only one left: Aurora. However, the journey to her solitude is long and fraught with catastrophes. Forest creatures come during the night and carry off several of the little people. Many die from poisonous berries, mushrooms, and plants. Some are eaten by their friends. Some are simply killed by their friends. And as time goes on, their personalities harden, crystallizing into black-and-white perspectives. Aurora is endlessly helpful and cheerful and that makes her the victim of the others’ selfishness. Zelie the helpless princess becomes ruthless and commanding, foregoing any humanity to achieve her happily ever after. Jane the outsider runs further and further away from the others, doing whatever she can to survive and even thrive. Plim the loyal friend hitches her wagon to Zelie and becomes bossy and cruel, taking advantage of others to further her own position. And the poor little blonde one burrows deeper and deeper into the body of the dead girl, refusing to venture outside or adapt to her new situation.

The reader spends much of the book trying to figure out what’s going on. Who is the dead girl? What happened to her? Who are these little people? How did they get there? What is the point of their story? Why are they all so endlessly selfish and shortsighted? And who is this bearded man in the woods that all the little people – except for the pragmatic Jane – seem so attracted to?

While much of the story does seem disjointed, it gains greater clarity when you understand that the little people are faucets of the dead’s girl’s personality. In the opening sequence, we literally seem them coming out of her, pouring out of her eye, nose, mouth, and clothing. If they weren’t anthropomorphized faucets of her personality, then how did they get there? Where did they come from? How did they build lives with dresses, shoes, and dances inside her body? We are never told, and none of the little people seem to have lives before the moment of the great collapse. Most are childlike and helpless and utterly unable to cope with the outside world. Those that do succeed because they grow hard but most fall to the wayside.

Thus, this particular fairy tale doesn’t have a moral; rather, it contains a life lesson: when we die, our bodies will return to nature, leaving only the smallest, most essential spark of ourselves. Beautiful Darkness tells the story of how this happens. First, our consciousness exits our body, trying to find purchase in the world. Then nature comes for us, decomposing our body and scattering our spirit. The strongest pieces of our spirit seek out remnants of our past; in this case, the bearded man in the forest. They latch onto him, foregoing their own safety for some security. And then we fade away.

Bearded_man

So who is the bearded man? While we are never explicitly told, we do receive some clues. He is a loner who lives in the forest and who knows where the dead girl’s body is but never tells anyone. He drinks, has a gun, and is capable of capturing, killing, and skinning wild animals. He has a broken toy doll in his home, despite the fact that there is nothing else in there suitable for a child. Jane both hates and fears him, but Aurora and Zelie, who are attracted to princes, seek him out and want to be with him.

The most logical explanation is that he had something to do with the girl’s death, especially if we’re going by fairy tale tropes and the one image we have of the girl when she was still alive. Our Sleeping Beauty goes to the woods to nap, possibly after having had a bad day at school, ditching it, or avoiding home. She wakes in the late afternoon and begins to stumble back and is stopped by something that makes her scream. Her scream echoes through her body, terrifying the blonde little person that refuses to leave her dead body. Who else could she have encountered but the bearded man? Did he lure her to his home? Did he assault her? Did he kill her and ditch her body in the woods, knowing that she was lost and no one would ever find her? But was he kind for a moment? Did he offer her honey, which is why Aurora thinks his hair smells like it? Did he smile at her and reassure her that everything would be okay, which is why both Zelie and Aurora call him their prince? Did he strangle her, which is why the dead girl’s body is so blue and why Jane hates the bearded man? And is that why all the living little people seek him out – because he is their last connection to life and the being who brought them to life?

If all of that is true, we’re back on familiar ground. We have a little girl who disobeys her parents and wanders into a dangerous area. She encounters a dangerous man, who momentarily tricks her. Then he violently and abruptly changes her life forever and all the other members of the fairy tale – the little people – must now try to find their own happy ending, forging their spirits through violence and disaster. That is something we can understand, even if it is brutal.

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What makes Beautiful Darkness even more haunting is its beautiful and playful art style. Kerascoët utilizes simple watercolor drawings (long the medium of children’s books) and a bright, natural palette to create scenes of horror – a bird forcibly feeding a little person, a little person puffing up with a rash, a fly wing-covered princess burying someone alive, forest creatures attacking and carrying off people, and little Aurora plucking out a mouse’s eyes. The scenes would be disturbing in and of themselves, but their wide-eyed and childlike beauty help heighten their horror.

If you have made it through the end of the book, you will remember it for years. Whenever someone asks you what your favorite fairy tale is, you will remember it, even if it isn’t. When someone asks if you’ve read any good books lately, you’ll pause over it. When someone tries to say that graphic novels can only be about superheroes, you’ll immediately demure. You may not like Beautiful Darkness, and you may never want to read it again, but you will remember it, which means that this fairy tale has done its job.