If any part of teen girl culture is prone to particular scorn, it’s band fandom: the girls who burst into tears at the sight of Justin Bieber and write elaborate fanfiction about how Louis Tomlinson and Harry Styles from One Direction are clearly secretly in love. Those girls are so culturally reviled that other teenage girls make fun of them. And it’s those girls who are the subject of Zan Romanoff’s warm, funny, occasionally cringe-inducing new YA novel, Grace and the Fever.
Grace is a fan of Fever Dream, a One Direction-esque boy band that she is well aware was no longer cool to like after age 14. Now 18 years old and just graduated from high school, Grace has developed an elaborate double life to hide her embarrassing obsession from the rest of her classmates. To her friends offline, she’s the quiet girl who doesn’t drink at parties but is otherwise pretty normal. But to her friends on Tumblr, she’s a bastion of Fever Dream fandom; more specifically, the corner of Fever Dream fandom that is pretty sure Fever Dream band members Solly and Land are secretly in love, and that “the management” has forced them to keep it a secret.
One day, Grace happens to make the acquaintance of Fever Dream singer Jes — and gets photographed by the paparazzi doing it. That’s when her two worlds start to collide. Suddenly, she’s a person of interest to the gossip industry, and that makes her the sworn enemy of most of her fellow Fever Dream fans, who are convinced she’s a plant hired by “the management” to keep everyone from figuring out the truth about Solly and Land. As a result, Grace must navigate the tricky waters of public life next to her favorite band without letting the band itself or her offline friends know that she’s a superfan, and without letting her fandom know she’s the girl they all hate.
There’s more than a whiff of fantasy fulfillment to this premise, with its “what if a Larry shipper got to meet Zayn and also make out with him a few times” vibe. But what makes Grace and the Fever so compelling is that it digs deep into what makes the fantasy of music fandom appealing, and then takes it apart.
This book is interested in what makes Fever Dream so deeply, passionately important to Grace and her fan friends, and in how Grace came to be so invested in the idea that Solly and Land are in love. It cares about the emotional function that a boy band can serve for teenage girls, how it gives them a safe space to project feelings and fantasies and romantic ideas onto unattainable ideals, and how fandom can form an immensely important community of, as Romanoff puts it, “funny, obsessive” people.
But the fantasy of the boy band only works as long as it’s unattainable. As Grace gets closer and closer to the Fever Dream boys, the book explores the creepy underbelly of the band-fan relationship: how the fan tends to blindly objectify and the band to blindly use, how the relationship seems to preclude either party recognizing the other as a human being. The relationship is valuable, Romanoff suggests, but it only works if everyone involved keeps their distance.
Grace and the Fever is a warm and thoughtful exploration of fannishness in all its multifaceted complexity, and it’s a sweet-natured coming of age story too. But most of all, it’s a love letter to band fandom, and all the funny, obsessive, reviled teenage girls who created it.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Larry Stylinson portmanteau refers to Harry Styles and Liam Payne. It refers to Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson.