How to Build a Girl
Published September 23, 2014
352 pages (hardcover)
Caitlin Moran is like a real-life William Miller from Almost Famous. Remember him? He was the high-school kid who diligently sent in stories from his school paper until Rolling Stone hired him to write for them:
When Moran was sixteen, she started writing for Melody Maker, a weekly British music newspaper. Since then, she has had multiple television shows, written a best-selling memoir/feminist manifesto (How to Be a Woman), and has received British Press Awards for Critic of the Year and Interviewer of the Year.
Her latest book, Moran assures us in her Author’s Note, “is a work of fiction.” But there are lots of similarities between Moran’s life and her protagonist’s. Moran admits, “Like Johanna, I come from a large family, grew up in a council house in Wolverhampton, and started my career as a music journalist as a teenager.” Clearly, she drew a great deal from personal experience.
At the beginning of the book, How to Build a Girl‘s protagonist, Johanna, is a fourteen-year-old. Moran says that there are three perfect hobbies for a teenage girl:
- Country walks; and
- The Revolution.
So it should come as no surprise that the book begins with fourteen-year-old Johanna lying in bed next to her six-year-old, sleeping brother (“he left his bunk at midnight, crying, and got in next to me”) . . . “having a wank.”
Johanna masturbates a lot. But she also has aspirations for something greater than the life her unemployed mother and father provide in Wolverhampton. After winning a writing contest with an award of £250 (another detail drawn from Moran’s real life), she decides that writing is her way out. She begins sending music reviews to Disc & Music Echo (under her pseudonym, Dolly Wilde) every day for 27 days. And, finally, she gets an invitation to come for an interview, where she is hired on the spot.
What follows is Johanna’s coming-of-age story. She has her first kiss. She talks her way backstage at the Smashing Pumpkins show (with her drunk dad in tow). She falls in (unrequited) love. She loses her virginity . . . and then vows to become a “legendary piece of ass,” a “Lady Sex Adventuress,” a “Pirate of Priates,” a “swashfuckler.” She hits rock bottom and decides she needs to reinvent herself (again).
Moran wanted this book to be about sex and class. And it is. It’s about teenage sexual discovery/experimentation (there’s some very awkward S & M scenes) and masturbation (Johanna likes to use her deodorant as a “Starter Dildo”). And it’s about the struggles of the working-class (unemployment, addiction, benefits, etc.).
On the cover, there’s a quotation that reads: “I have so much love for Caitlin Moran.” It’s by Lena Dunham, and this makes perfect sense. Johanna Morrigan reminds me a lot of Lena Dunham’s character on Girls, Hannah: unabashed and a little obnoxious with a (rather large) hint of self-loathing . . . but also occasionally quite funny.
If you watch Girls with any regularity, then you know there’s a certain immature, in-your-face element to it. A book that begins with the protagonist masturbating clearly shares that vibe. There are lots of situations intended for shock value (like the horrific UTI Johanna gets after having sex with “Big Cock Al” or her brother saying to her: “Get off my bed—I don’t want you perioding on it again . . . You’re too free and easy with your bodily fluids. I found evidences of your viscera on my pillowcase last week.”). But things quickly cease being shocking, surprising, or in-your-face when they’re repeated often enough . . . they just become a little gratuitous and played out (see, e.g., Lena Dunham’s naked body).
This book is at its strongest when it is not describing Johanna’s sexual yearnings and awkward escapades. The best chapter (and, in fact, one of the best chapters I’ve read in a book in a long time) is one that describes Johanna meeting someone and spending an epic day with him. He is a person who will clearly be a life-long friend. It is fun and honest and heartfelt. It feels like Moran’s façade broke down a bit in writing that chapter . . . and I wish she had been able to let that side of her shine through in more of the book. It would have made the book as a whole much, much better.
Who should read it: If you’re a big fan of Girls, then you’ll like this book.
Still trying to figure out whether you should read it? You can see Moran discuss the book in greater detail here (but be forewarned: listening to her for a stretch can be exhausting. She talks at least twice as fast as the average human):
Want to read along with me? A review of this book is coming soon:
- How to be both by Ali Smith (short-listed for the Man Booker Prize; winner of the 2014 Goldsmiths Prize; winner of the 2014 Costa Novel Award)