Review: How To Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran
I received this book for free from the publisher via Edelweiss. All content and opinions are my own.
I was inspired by this pre-publication readalong to seek out a copy of How To Build a Girl. And I’m glad I did.
Here’s a portion of the blurb:
What do you do in your teenage years when you realize what your parents taught you wasn’t enough? You must go out and find books and poetry and pop songs and bad heroes—and build yourself.
It’s 1990. Johanna Morrigan, fourteen, has shamed herself so badly on local TV that she decides that there’s no point in being Johanna anymore and reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde—fast-talking, hard-drinking gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer. She will save her poverty-stricken Bohemian family by becoming a writer—like Jo in Little Women, or the Brontës—but without the dying-young bit.
By sixteen, she’s smoking cigarettes, getting drunk, and working for a music paper. She’s writing pornographic letters to rock stars, having all the kinds of sex with all the kinds of men, and eviscerating bands in reviews of 600 words or less.
Johanna. I’m still not sure what I feel for her. It’s something. Something between admiration and pity, leaning toward the admiration side. But, I think, more telling is that I apparently feel more for Caitlin Moran. Clearly, this book is based in someway on her own life, since she lived in similar circumstances as a teen and worked at a music magazine at a young age. It definitely felt more memoir-ish than novel-ish. There were also certain sections that became didactic (like the bit on cynicism), where it seemed the author stepped in and was lecturing. And I often felt that Johanna was not cognizant ad self-aware enough to make the observations she made. (She is, of course, slightly older as she writes the book, but that fact only enhanced the memoir-feel of it.) But I was willing to forgive most of this. It’s funny and blatant and well-written. I highlighted the crap out of it.
I still feel the burn of shame from when I interviewed a band and pronounced “paradigm” as spelled, and they mockingly corrected me. This is the terrible thing about learning everything from books–sometimes you don’t know how to say the words. You know the ideas, but you cannot discuss them with people with any confidence. And so you stay silent. It is the curse of the autodidact. Or “autodidiact,” as I said, on the same shameful day. Oh, that was a conversation that went so wrong.
Is this YA? Johanna is fourteen at the beginning and seventeen by the end. So, if the age of the protagonist is the defining characteristic, yes it is. But the subject matter and descriptions are decidedly not what you currently find in the YA section. Johanna is at once a child and an adult. Compare the following two quotes:
I dealt with this with all the coping mechanisms I knew: lying under the bed with the dog, reading Little Women and eating jam sandwiches dipped in instant hot chocolate.
In the end, I find what works is to stop thinking about what I am thinking about this particular sexual intercourse . . . and start thinking about what he’s thinking, instead. . . . There is very little female narrative of what it’s like to fuck and be fucked. I will realize that, as a seventeen-year-old girl, I couldn’t really hear my own voice during this sex. I had no idea what my voice was at all.
The idea in that last quote above is what really stuck with me from the book. There is very little female narrative about sexual experience. Johanna talks about masturbation and a number of sexual interactions. And it made me uncomfortable to read about it. It made me uncomfortable to include that quote above in this review. But I applaud Moran’s willingness to both include it and point it out.
So what do you do when you build yourself — only to realize you built yourself with the wrong things? You rip it up and start again. That is the work of your teenage years — to build up and tear down and build up again, over and over, endlessly, like speeded-up film of cities during boom times and wars. To be fearless and endless, in your reinventions — to keep twisting on nineteen, going bust, and dealing in again, and again. Invent, invent, invent.
How To Build a Girl was sad and, well, a bit painful. But I’m glad it exists, and I’m glad I read it. It’s about a teenage girl finding out who she is, building herself. It just made me wish she had had a bit more guidance, a few more friendly influences, and a little bit more help and understanding. Perhaps this book is meant to be a form of guidance to those teenagers who don’t have ready sources of it. I hope this book finds those souls.