When I finished Fangirl, I remembered I had this other book on my shelf about college experience. It’s likewise about a girl living in a dorm for the first time- in this case she’s a bit older, twenty- and has just transferred into a larger university for her final two years, so she feels a bit out of place. But so much of the details were similar it felt odd- made me wonder if Rowell had read College Girl and subconsciously or otherwise was influenced? or is it just what we expect to hear, as readers. In both cases, there’s dorm life. There’s a somewhat brusque roommate. There’s a love interest who’s very tall and lanky, with light hair and a friendly face, always smiling. There’s hours spent in the beloved library, studying or just avoiding people. There’s insecurity and awkwardness around peers, and one professor in particular who tries to be a guiding element but meets with conflict from the student.
Much else is different, though. In this book, the protagonist Natalie isn’t much of a reader, at least of fiction. She studies Russian history, finds delight in memorizing all the minute details about events and historical figures. Just like the other character, she starts off not knowing many other students and only gradually makes friends. Her studies begin to suffer partway through the book, and then take a serious downward slide- but in this case, it’s due to becoming overly focused on a boy she becomes involved with- in an unhealthy way. He seems nice upfront, but it soon becomes obvious to the reader that he has just one reason for being interested in her, and she takes that to mean a lot more than it does. Even when the red flags start flying, she makes excuses to herself and continues to meet with him, though he treats her worse as time goes on. Natalie is kind of desperate to gain the ubiquitous college experiences, so she goes to parties, drinks, takes up smoking, and eventually sleeps with her uncaring boyfriend. It was starting to feel very dismal to the reader.
Then she goes home for a holiday break- and suddenly a lot comes into focus when the family is revealed. They’re all blue-collar workers, sneer at her attempts to gain a college education, constantly insult and criticize her. Now the insecurities and self-doubt make sense. Add to that her struggles to makes sense of loosing a brother to suicide years earlier (which no one in the family will talk about) and I started to really feel sympathetic for her. Warning: there’s talk of self-harm and suicidal ideation in this novel. I was really glad at the end to see Natalie finally give her icky boyfriend the boot, find a better roommate, get back on track with her classes, discover some direction for her future and then meet a decent guy. The ending again felt a bit too quickly wrapped up, but I was satisfied that it put this character on much better footing than she’d been for most of the novel. Reading this was like watching someone nearly wreck their life- akin to She’s Come Undone or The Book of Ruth. But it has a much more hopeful feel and I rather liked it in the end.