Wednesday, October 14, 2015

'Carry On' by Rainbow Rowell

This book discussion is not spoiler-free. If you haven’t read Fangirl and Carry On yet, I strongly recommend you read no further.

I bought my copy of Carry On by Rainbow Rowell on the day it was released: Tues. October 6th. I couldn’t wait to dig in and start reading the boy-boy love story. (I say “boy,” but understand I’m talking about 18-year-old adults.) I finished it a week later, on Monday the 12th. In a way, I still can’t believe I’ve finished it. Reading Carry On was an incredibly enjoyable experience. I’m not sure I can entirely explain why, but I’ll try.

Part of it was the extent to which I enjoyed Rowell’s 2013 book, Fangirl. Recall that I didn’t just LIKE Cath Avery, but also felt like I WAS Cath Avery. Because Cath loved Simon Snow and his vampire classmate Baz, I loved Simon Snow and his beloved/enemy Baz.

Another part of the puzzle is that Simon and Baz are based, in part, on Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.  I’ve never personally been a Drarry shipper – I’m satisfied with J.K. Rowling’s choice of Ginny Weasley as Harry Potter’s lifemate. Even if Rowling herself sometimes wishes she’d made Harry and Hermione more than friends. Let’s face it: I’m a grown adult who wears Harry Potter socks and a golden snitch necklace and whenever I hear plumbing make a funny noise my first thought is still “Chamber of Secrets!” I consider myself a member of the Harry Potter fandom. I understand the fandom impulse.

And yes, it is exciting to read a mainstream novel in which the featured romantic subplot involves a same-sex couple. It IS important to me as an out bisexual woman to have non-heterosexual (I’d say queer, but I don’t want to use that word if it will offend some readers. I personally do not have a problem with “queer”), positive representation in the media. Especially in the traditional media.

Can you imagine if J.K. Rowling went back and wrote a book about Albus Dumbledore’s unrequited love for Gellert Grindelwald? It would be heartbreaking and poignant and I would love that so much, even while it was torturing my poor little heart.

But until we get Carry On, Albus, we have to settle for SnowBaz.

In my review of Fangirl, I wrote, “Let's talk about Simon Snow. I honestly would love it if someone wrote Carry On, Simon as Cath, because the little bits of fan fiction that we get in the novel are tasty. Cath left her magnum opus unfinished (and, may I just say, I think the ending of this novel is perfection and I wouldn't want it any other way), but I still want to know if she decided to kill Baz or to let Simon and Baz live happily ever after. We're somewhat left hanging in a Hazel Grace Lancaster-type fashion. This book is meta to begin with - fiction about a fiction writer writing fan fiction about fiction - would it just be too incredibly meta for someone to write Carry On, Simon?”

Rowell hasn’t written Carry On, Simon, but she’s written something even better. Carry On isn’t written as Cath Avery writing Simon Snow fan fiction, nor is it written as if it were the original novel Cath based her fan fiction on (written by the fictional Gemma T. Leslie). Instead it’s a Simon Snow novel written in Rowell’s own authorial voice. But I no longer feel disappointed or Peter Van Houtened by Fangirl. I’ve gotten my SnowBaz story – and (spoiler alert!) Baz doesn’t even die.

Of course, I would not be sad if Rowell somehow extended this to a 7- or 8-book series…I’m just sayin’.

Ultimately, Simon Snow owes his existence to J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter. Because Rowling’s world-building is so thorough, and we’re already assumed to be familiar with it, Simon Snow’s Watford School already seems like familiar territory – yet it is its own unique world. Further, Rowling and Rowell are brilliant writers, each in unique ways. As I’ve discussed in my reviews of the Robert Galbraith novels, Rowling is intimately familiar with all 400+ years of English-language literature, plus the Latin language, plus Classical mythology and a veritable buffet of multicultural world mythologies.  She’s wonderfully erudite and such a natural storyteller, she can write a children’s book filled with scholarly Classical references without either boring the reader or showing off.

I’m not implying that Rowell isn’t as brilliant or as educated as Rowling, but Rowell’s storytelling style is more inwardly oriented, more personal and intimate and less world-traveling. She writes with her tongue in her cheek, tossing in pop cultural references that might be not-so-subtly winking puns, meaningful allusions, or a combination of the two. In an early chapter, for example, Simon is nearly taken out by a taxi driver who turns out to be a goblin. In the mirror’s reflection he appears to have green skin and blood-red lips, but otherwise he’s “handsome as a pop star.” Any goblin who manages to kill Simon will become the goblin king. Wait a minute: goblin king, handsome as a pop star? Is she talking about David Bowie in the film Labyrinth, in which the pop star plays the Goblin King?

I have no doubt Rowell is making references to a wide variety of fantasy novels, films, and tropes throughout her novel. I half-suspect the surname Snow is a reference to Game of Thrones – Simon, like Jon Snow, was abandoned by his parents. Of course, it’s revealed in Carry On that Snow is his middle name. Maybe Simon officially has his mother Lucy’s last name. It’s unclear whether Davy (the Mage) and Lucy ever married – not that that would necessarily require her to change her name. I don’t recall the Mage’s last name ever being given.

Baz – short for Tyrannus Basilton – has his mother’s last name. His mother, Natasha Pitch-Grimm, was headmistress of Watford before The Mage. Baz’s father isn’t a bully like Lucius Malfoy; he’s more of a neglectful parent than an abusive one. He’s not happy that Baz is gay. Baz doesn’t identify much with his father, so he doesn’t use the Grimm last name. He’s chummy with his Grimm cousins, though.

Naming traditions are more conventional in the household of Simon’s best friend, Penelope Bunce. Penelope is a British girl with a British-ethnicity dad and an Indian-ethnicity mom. She has some of the traits of Ron Weasley (including ginger hair, in their first year at Watford) and some of the traits of Hermione Granger, yet she managers to be her own unique character. Her siblings, including brother Premal and sister Priya, have Indian personal names, but they all have the Bunce family name. Penelope is technically a name from Greek mythology, but it’s not that uncommon in the English-speaking world.

Rowell, of course, is from the United States. She’s writing English characters who speak U.K. English, and occasionally (to my North American ears) this rings a little false. For example, I’ve never heard a person from the U.K. or Ireland refer to a “bag of crisps.”* The familiar expression is “a packet of crisps” where we Americans would say “a bag of chips.” But U.K. readers will have to weigh in on that matter.

(I can say that E.L. James, writing in the voices of U.S. characters, uses an occasional phrase that rings very British. It works both ways – as if we can understand, but not quite reproduce, one another’s dialects.)

The witches and wizards of Simon’s world are a bit more modern than those in Harry’s, who seem a bit stuck in the 19th century in some of their customs. Simon doesn’t speak Latin. Heck, he barely speaks English. (His dad really did a number on him when he dumped Simon in that orphanage.) Rowell’s witches cast spells in English, using concentration and intent to turn common phrases into spells. Any phrase can become a spell, theoretically, but some have caught on and are common. Song titles and lyrics often work well, and nursery rhymes are said to be the most powerful spells of all.

Baz’s family – the Pitch side – is unusually gifted with fire magic. This is a shame, since Baz (made a vampire, not born a vampire) is more flammable than the average human, something his dad and aunt (a somewhat Bellatrix LeStrange-like character, but not quite as evil) consistently remind him of. Baz is aristocratic, worldly, handsome, charming, and completely in love with Simon since their fifth year of school.

Yet it’s Simon who initiates their first kiss, in a moment of despair when Baz seems on the verge of suicide by self-immolation. Simon hasn’t quite worked out his sexuality yet. He knows he’s attracted to Baz – Baz’s huge vampire fangs impress him. It’s unclear whether he’s sexually attracted to Agatha Wellbelove or simply socially attracted to her. It’s a question the author chose to leave open. It’s entirely possible Simon is bisexual or pansexual, though.

The first kiss is magickal. Please don’t judge me, but I may have done a slight dance shortly after reading it. I really do love SnowBaz as a couple.

Of course, the dramatic climax is a traumatic climax. Not Allegiant traumatic, but still…Simon loses a person and a thing, both very dear to him. The person, Ebb the goatherd, is sort of a combination of Rubeus Hagrid and Sybil Trelawney, in a very wonderful way. Her nickname is short for Ebeneza. She’s a very powerful magician but must sacrifice herself (which she does willingly) to save Agatha.

Agatha Wellbelove doesn’t closely resemble any of the characters in the Harry Potter series. Her family name is vaguely reminiscent of Luna Lovegood’s, but she’s not quirky like Luna. In fact, she’s quite the opposite: she’d rather be with her Normal friends (the equivalent of Muggles – apparently, magicians can hear the difference between Normal and normal) than at a magickal school. She has a slight crush on Baz – one that’s destined to be unrequited, obviously. But it is not a typical young adult novel love triangle, not at all. In fact, Agatha breaks off her relationship with Simon because she realizes they’re both only going through the motions.

Penelope – Penny – has an American boyfriend named Micah. I have a deep desire to watch a sitcom starring Mindy Kaling as an older Penny living in the U.S.A. with Micah and their kids. Seems unlikely to happen, though.

Penny’s roommate, Trixie the pixie (the ridiculous name is lampshaded by the characters), is also LGBTQ+. Her girlfriend is another female Watford student, and the fact that dorm rules do nothing to keep them from snogging and flinging pixie dust 24/7 annoys Penny to no end. Technically she isn’t allowed in Baz and Simon’s shared suite, but through some unknown method she circumvents this policy – a feat never attempted by policy-respecting Hermione Granger.

SnowBaz ends more happily-for-now than happily-ever-after. They both have such grave insecurities. But I’ll take it. It’s better than being stuck, not knowing whether Baz even survives the end of Cath’s fan fiction rendition of Gemma T. Leslie’s world. (It’s not even entirely clear that Baz CAN be killed.) I like knowing Rainbow Rowell’s take.

I purchased Carry On with my own funds and was obligated to review it in any way. But I really, really, really liked it.

See what I did there?
*Retracted. J.K. Rowling uses "bag of crisps" in one of the Cormoran Strike/Robin Ellacot novels.

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