Cath is a mixed bag of anti-social neuroticism, insecurity, and self-loathing. She's glaringly unenthusiastic about moving away from home and into a dorm—not to mention procuring a roommate who, for the first time in her life, is NOT her sister. Resistant to change, socially handicapped, and disinterested in anyone who isn't her family, she clings desperately to the escapist coping mechanism she's grown to rely on: obsessing over her favorite middle-grade book series and writing slash fanfiction.
Needless to say...Cath presents with considerable room for personal growth. Fortunately for those concerned with compelling characterization, there is a sympathy-inducing reason for the condition we find her in.
It takes a number of chapters in to reveal the root cause, but readers eventually come to realize that Cath and her identical twin sister, Ren, have been shaped (and emotionally stunted) by severe maternal abandonment issues. Cath's own assessment of this feels most apt and accurate: Ren started acting out, while Cath acted in. The two are a sort of equal-yet-opposite dichotomy of dysfunction. Cath attempts to root the bulk of her identity in her re-writing of fictional characters she's “borrowed” from a famous author. Ren, on the other hand, dives headlong into the party scene and discards Cath almost completely.
Left to her own devices, Cath is more or less taken under the pitying wing of her otherwise prickly roommate, Ragan—and by extension, Ragan's country-boy pseudo-boyfriend, Levi. Cath proceeds into the realities of new-adulthood, all but literally kicking and screaming the whole way.
Unfortunately, the only character this reader was able to form any fondness for was Levi. I love to see an unconventional male protagonist, and Levi fits the unusual bill. He's the positive charge to Cath (and everyone else's) negativity and the kind, refreshing counterbalance to the story's abundance of narcissism. The fact that he's “not much of a reader” makes him all the more charming juxtaposed to Cath's exceedingly narrow literary fixation.
The prose is workable—with a fairly even number of awkward similes to poignant ones. The pacing moves along well for the first 40% or so, but then seems to lag—with no obvious external conflicts to propel the plot onward. Once our heroine (and I use the term loosely) gets her guy, readers may be left wondering what overall goal remains to look forward to. For those hoping for an impactful wrap-up, this book's ending may prove more forgettable than anything.
As for the plotline, I appreciated the complexity of the author's stories-within-a-story approach. Truly! It was gutsy, ambitious, and different. (And this reader is no stranger to the concept of a “fandom” nor to the pastime of fanfiction writing/reading.) But in the end...I'm not entirely sure how well it served the primary story.
Initially I thought the Simon Snow (i.e. shameless discount Harry Potter) excerpts and fanfic segments were intended to somehow parallel the “real-life” story Cather was living out. But there didn't seem to be much for true connectivity, and so the resulting sense was a bit scattered—wrenching me out of the primary storyline at the end of most chapters.
Alas, not one this reader particularly enjoyed. But Rowell writes such drastically different kinds of stories, I'm not dissuaded from giving another of her works a try.