It hasn’t taken very long for Rainbow Rowell to become a familiar name at the bookstore. Since her first book, the funny and sad adult epistolary novel-in-emails Attachments, in 2011, and the twin young adult behemoths of Eleanor & Park and Fangirl, both published in 2013, the Nebraska-based author has quickly become a favorite of discerning readers and “fangirls” alike. She has an ardent, passionate fanbase, so much so that it’s difficult to find a head shot of Rowell in Google Image Search; rather, there’s page after page of photos of her posing with fans, and fan art featuring quotes from her books and hand-drawn pictures of her characters.
Is there a secret sauce to Rowell’s success? Perhaps it’s something as simple as sweetness. Her books are about characters finding something to hold on to out of life’s darkness, whether it’s love, fan fiction, or a magical landline phone. The last one is a plot point from her newest book and her second work “for adults,” Landline, due for release this Tuesday (which already has 400-plus reviews on Goodreads. Her fans are ardent). It’s a modern-day fable about a TV writer, Georgie McCool, whose marriage is in trouble — in the span of two weeks, her husband and her children have gone to visit their in-laws in Nebraska, while Georgie is unmoored in Los Angeles, trying to write four screenplays in two weeks, given an opportunity she can’t refuse in her career. Terrified that her marriage is breaking up, she finds an outlet in secret nighttime phone conversations… with her husband, Neal, at a pivotal point in their relationship 15 years ago.
Landline is a quick read, dialogue-driven and wrestling with real questions about how to keep a marriage and love alive when life gets in the way, in the form of its lightly silly, Back to the Future-esque plot. It’s wrestling with adult issues — can women have it all? — but it’s at its best when Georgie is thinking back to the first flush of love, learning how to fall in love (again) with her husband. Still, it’s a bit of a wobbly introduction to the magic of Rowell’s work, lacking some of the intense feelings and emotions that make her young adult books stand out from the pack.
While Rowell seems to be straddling the world of adult fiction and young adult fiction adeptly, it’s in YA that she’s become something of a name. This seems to be due to a combination of two things. First: Eleanor & Park is a really good, Romeo and Juliet-style classic tale of two kids from the wrong side of the tracks, the redheaded new girl Eleanor falling in love with nerdy Asian kid Park in 1986 Nebraska. Dreamworks picked up the book for a potential movie, with Rowell handling the screenplay. Secondly — and I’m shocked that this hasn’t happened before — Fangirl is one of the few books out there about the thriving culture of fan fiction, and the main character’s love of writing faux-Harry Potter slash fiction is a significant part of her identity, treated with the utmost respect. Her life in fan fiction is the thing that matters to her as she flounders through her freshman year of college. That’s eminently relatable, and it’s found a home on sites like Tumblr.
Like the characters she writes about, Rowell has a Tumblr, where Fangirl was the first choice for the Tumblr Reblog Book Club. In an email, Rachel Fershleiser, the head of publishing outreach for Tumblr, told me that one thing that sets Rowell apart from other popular Tumblr authors “is that she’s just another user, basically.” Like other users, Rowell posts about things she loves, like Sherlock, Star Trek, and Harry Potter. “She’s here to fangirl as much as to be fangirled at,” Fershleiser writes. “She’s extremely responsive and friendly and open to people who respond to her work.”
Not many authors get a legitimate buzz book out of their first couple of tries, but the thing with Eleanor & Park is that it had great support from St. Martin’s Press, and that enthusiasm created buzz. Rowell’s voice and ability have been strong enough in follow-ups to create a cult. As Fershleiser put it, “I think she captures exactly the teen experience, and even more so the nerdy teen experience, in a way that is completely resonant to both young people and people who remember being young. And she helps us remember.”