This review was written as a part of Cannonball Read 7. Click here to learn more about this most awesome thing.
I, like many other 20-somethings with ADHD, a nostalgia for the teen years we didn’t have, and a full-time workload (school or work or both) that leaves us too exhausted for 500-page tomes surreptitiously about Life and Important Thoughts—love the shit out of YA novels. Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl is YA written for adults. It’s a YA book that dropped out of high school its junior year to pick up a smoking habit and eyeliner addiction while interning for Rolling Stone. This book is Go Ask Alice by way of Eddie Izzard and Stephen Fry with a happier ending and a much, much better soundtrack. And it is so funny. Dear fucking god is it funny. I don’t always agree with Moran’s beliefs on sex, living, and feminism, but I’ve always had a soft spot for her and her writing, feeling equal measurements of awe with her witty, absurd turns of phrase and dire depression at never being able to put words together in as pleasing a fashion as her. I devoured the first 50 pages sitting on ModernLove‘s couch and pretending not to notice her looking over at me every time I giggle-tripped my way through another paragraph. Imagine Almost Famous but in the early 90s, dirtier, raunchier, with a lot more cursing and horny virgin teenage girls.
For those of you in any way familiar with Caitlin Moran’s other writing, the story of a fat teenage girl named Johanna Morrigan living in public housing and who leaves school to become a music writer sounds familiar, but Moran states explicitly that this is not an autobiography. These aren’t her parents, those aren’t her siblings, and that’s not her life. Fair enough, but it’s hard not to see Moran in Morrigan. While trying to save her family from financial ruin through a poetry competition, Johanna embarasses her and them on local TV and decides that the person she was must die. In her place is Dolly Wilde, a smoking, drinking, snorting, shagging, foul-mouth, sharp-tongued music journalist.
You see, the life Johanna is trying to escape sucks. It really, really sucks. We come to know her, know her in a way we don’t even know our best friends. We know her from the inside out through her ridiculous fears to her very, very real ones. Her family is poor and hungry and desperate. Her father, who, after a bad accident at work, is about one-third made of metal, desperately clings to a hopeless dream of becoming a pop star and escaping from working-class Wolverhampton and poverty, and her mother is downtrodden, mostly absent, and a prisoner of post-partum depression after the birth of the unnamed Unexpected Twins. When she decides to destroy herself and become Dolly, Johanna writes herself as a Mary Sue in her own real life except Mary Sues can’t exist in real life and either become real people with real messed-up flaws or explode. The person she becomes is someone who doesn’t give a fuck what others think of her, but Johanna herself does give a fuck. She gives a lot of fucks. She gives so many fucks about being liked and fitting in that she forgets about things like what she wants and who she is. It is the path that many a teenager needs to take before striking out on their own, and I love that.
For all my love, though, it’s not a perfect book. It can meander sometimes, and a majority of the characters aren’t the most complex creations ever committed to the written word. The narrator’s voice jumps back and forth to the teenager who sometimes bordered on foolishly childish and the future, knowing adult Johanna who can’t help but comment on what silly teenage Johanna is experiencing or thinking, which threw me from time to time. Like much of Moran’s writing, it is (not totally unlike this review) very self-aware and tries to guard itself against criticism (“If you can’t save yourself from attack by being powerful—and I, palpably, have no power; my hands are empty—then perhaps you can save yourself from attack by being ruined, instead. Blow yourself up before the enemy gets to you.”). The sense of humor won’t appeal to some . It’s the kind of sarcastic, articulate, hyperbolic, absurd, rambly humor that you’ll find in a lot of British comedy and of which Moran wields like a superpower. The words jump off the page, grab you by the throat, spin you around seven times, shove you up against a wall, then tickle your brain until you wet yourself from laughter. It’s the same sense of humor that I both envy and find completely exhausting (I never finished Russell Brand’s My Booky Wook for this very reason.)
That said, I love this book. I want to be best friends with this book. It’s the kind of book I wish I could write myself. I nearly gave it just 4 stars, but just look at how much I’ve written about it. This book made me laugh and smile and excited to pick up another book, regardless of whom it’s written by. I’d happy loan this out to anyone who was unsure about it and offer endless quotes from it. If that’s not what I’m saving a five-star rating for, then what?
If you like this, you might also enjoy Angus, Thongs and Full-Front Snogging by Louise Rennison, Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Stephen Fry’s Moab Is My Washpot and, of course, Caitlin Moran’s other books like How to Be a Woman. (I haven’t read Lena Dunham’s book yet, but I suspect if and when I do, I’d add it to the list.)