How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
Published by Harper Collins on September 23rd 2014
Genres: Coming of Age, Fiction, Humorous, Literary
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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.But what happens when Johanna realizes she's built Dolly with a fatal flaw? Is a box full of records, a wall full of posters, and a head full of paperbacks enough to build a girl after all?
I read this book as part of a read-along with a number of other bloggers a few months back. I adored it. This book is going to piss some people off, lots of people are going to be put off by the opening scene, fourteen year old Johanna Morrigan masturbating in bed.
But what’s great about How to Build a Girl is, for the most part it’s an incredibly real book. It’s a book that finally gives a narrative voice to teenage girls about growing up as teenage girls. Sex, drugs, poverty, and welfare are all explored by Moran in such an expert way that I have half of the book highlighted. Moran shies away from none of these things. There is no misty lighting when describing Johanna’s sexual experiences – it’s done very matter-of-factly, there is nothing titillating or pornographic about it. I would love to see this book in high school libraries. I’d love to see it taught to high school students (but it’s never ever going to happen). There’s plenty of laughter and places to feel the feels.
I know other readers are bothered by some tense shifting within the novel. Most of the time we’re hearing the voice of 14 – 17 year old Johanna, but every now and then the tense shifts and the words seem to be coming from an older, wiser narrator. This didn’t bother me in the least, but there are plenty of readers I know who it drove crazy. Which is a bit weird to me, because I’ve read plenty of books since (which some of these same bloggers have also read) that had the same tense shifting and no one said boo about it…
Moran has written a novel here, that, for the first time since Judy Blume, has given teenage girls a voice. But for all the good it could do for teenagers to read this book, it’s not really a YA novel. The best way I can think of to describe it is that it’s a highly relatable coming of age novel that women and girls have needed for a long time now. I applaud Moran for writing this and her publishers for not shying away from the hard topics.
How to Build a Girl is the perfect balance of levity, heart-break, and reality. I highly recommend this to well… everyone. But those most likely to enjoy it will be people with an open mind and understanding of feminism who are willing to stretch just a tiny bit outside of what they perceive their comfort zone to be. It’s worth it.
What do you think, Reader? Could you venture just a little (or a lot) outside of your comfort zone to read this revolutionary book? Or does this sound completely out of bounds for you? I can’t help but shout it from the rooftops. It’s so good.
P.S. If you’ve already read the book, or have no intentions of reading it I might highly recommend my read-along posts:
Chapters 5 – 10
Chapters 11 – 15
Chapters 16 – 20
I’m excited to be participating in the tour for Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl, be sure to check out the entire tour schedule here, it runs through 22 October.