I’ve had an incredibly difficult time writing a coherent review for this book, because I loved the characters but I wasn’t such a fan of the actual construction of the story. At one point, I was actually pretty sure I'd be rating this three stars, so you can consider this a solid three and a half but I'll round it up because of how damned appealing it is...and the fact that I got a little sniffly reading it on the Metro.
In her second book of 2013, Rainbow Rowell introduces us to Cather, who is anxious about starting college at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Her twin sister Wren (get it, Cather and Wren? Womp, womp) doesn’t want to be roommates so that they can become their own individuals, so Cather is stuck with a rather grumpy junior named Reagan whose high school boyfriend, Levi, is always hanging around. Cather loves writing, but - much to her creative writing professor's chagrin - her niche is slash fanfiction about Simon Snow, the main character in a Harry Potter-style phenom book series. Cath's fic gets tens of thousands of hits every day, and she'd rather stay in her dorm and write than go to a party. She's the quintessential Nerd girl -- awkward and insecure, but intelligent and charming. She’s a fantastic protagonist, completely realistic and relatable. It’s hard not to root for this girl, even when she’s making bad decisions.
She’s also got a pretty serious case of social anxiety, which is not something that’s often addressed honestly and empathetically in fiction. I’ve struggled with social anxiety, to different degrees of severity at different points in my life. It’s not just about being nerdy or shy and quiet, it’s about feeling like you can’t have successful social interactions with others because the fear of criticism or rejection or judgment is so intense. What I saw in Cather wasn’t just a girl who didn’t want to drink and go to frat parties because she liked nerdier pursuits, but a girl who doesn’t know how to interact with people in the real world because it makes her so uncomfortable. She lived off protein bars for the first few weeks of college because she was afraid that she’d walk into the dining hall and commit a faux pas in the form of getting in the wrong line or sitting at the wrong table. I could whole-heartedly relate to this and Rowell’s exploration of that side of Cather was a very emotional thing for me -- hence the need to pretend I was pulling an eyelash out of my retina so strangers wouldn’t stare at me for getting misty on the train.
I expected that I’d be giving this a lower score because there’s often just too much going on. Cather’s academic and social concerns are further complicated by a mother who took off when the girls were eight (on September 11, no less, which was a weird thing to be reading about on the anniversary), a twin sister who has distanced herself and begun to drink to excess, a classmate who might be stealing her work, and a father whose bipolar disorder is barely controlled. A lot of this is meant to serve as exposition for Cather’s anxiety – and that’s important. It makes sense. I just think it would have worked a little better if the story had stayed just a bit tighter. It needed some more focus, especially considering that most of these threads weren’t really addressed by the time the book suddenly ended.
It’s weird to suggest that a 400 page book ends suddenly, but this one does. The few threads that do end felt kind of rushed. I ultimately didn’t find it satisfying.
Still, I get why so many people love this book. The appreciation of fandom, the empathetic main character. There were some fun scenes (Emergency Kanye Dance party was pretty awesome) and some great writing. It’s very engaging, so I bumped up the rating a bit.