Caitlin Moran’s tale of a working class girl ascending to life as a music critic while designing what kind of person she wants to be will resonate with any teenager who’s trying to figure out their lives. It’s a unique book—there’s no other way to say it—because it both accepts and alienates the reader in equal terms, or at least it did with me. Any book that starts with the fourteen year old protagonist masturbating is one that will either scare you away on the first page or vaguely interest you enough to slog through the sex.
Johanna Morrigan isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life, but anything that will get her out of Wolverhampton and off of benefits sounds good. She tries acting and then poetry, but an embarrassing appearance on TV shows her that if she wants a better life then she’s going to have to build a girl who can get there. Cue the birth of Dolly Wilde: music critic, smoker, drinker, lady sex adventurer, savior of her family.
Dolly Wilde gets a job at a national music magazine, gets paid to drink and go to concerts, and earns money tearing upcoming bands a new one. She meets a musician, John Kite, and finds someone who understands her completely. Johanna buries herself in Dolly Wilde, hiding from her real world problems behind massive amount of eyeliner, and indulges too much in drinking, in sex with men who don’t love her, in cigarettes, and in hate. Finding her way out of the life she built won’t be easy, and does she even want to leave?
There’s so many refreshing things about this novel, but—at the same time—they feel so strange and surreal because no one else is writing them. There aren’t many young adult type novels with a teenage girl who is so open to her sexuality, actively engages with it, and has a story arch that is most commonly given to males. Johanna masturbates, dreams about kissing, hates her virginity, has lots of sexual encounters, and has a healthy hormonal drive that so many characters are devoid of outside of Harlequin romances or smut. It’s weird to read about a sixteen year old engaging in very candid sex, but it’s nice at the same time.
To be honest, I didn’t really care much about the sex beyond the fact that it was there at all, because I was more interested in Johanna’s writing career and her relationship with her family. The dynamics of poverty and class structure in post-Thatcher U.K. are interesting for me as an American to read about, especially because of Johanna’s working class background and her anxiety about the situation at hand.
It’s also refreshing for there to be a gay character in a novel that isn’t focused on or given a plotline directly related to them being homosexual. Krissi, Johanna’s brother, is gay but there isn’t a plot about him getting a boyfriend or coming out to his parents. He’s treated like a normal, wonderful character and his plot revolves around how his life is affected by Johanna’s choices. He’s also really funny.
All of the characters are distinct and easy to remember, and they’re likeable in their imperfections. John Kite is like the 1990s version of the Hipster Dream Boy trope, and I personally pictured him as singer Ed Sheeran. Johanna’s father has dreams of being a rock star again, but how he goes about it doesn’t always work out. Johanna’s mother is wracked with postpartum depression in the wake of surprise twins, and although her parents seem like total opposites and argue throughout much of the book I like that they have moments of intimacy like real couples do.
The whole book smacks of realism in ways that young adult novels rarely do. They, more often than not, seem like glossy magazine ads for teenage years and adventures, but How to Build a Girl reads like an adult reflecting on being a teenager and all of the lessons that they’ve learned and all of the things that happened that they wish they could change. Although it’s bizarre to read a book about a teenage girl drinking, smoking, and sexing her way to a better life like men normally do, it’s nice to read because she’s not punished socially for doing so and it’s just another step in her self-discovery.
There’s a beautiful paragraph toward the end that I really related to: “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 films of cities during boom times, and wars. To be fearless, and endless in your reinventions – to keep twisting on nineteen, going bust and dealing again, and again. Invent, invent, invent.”
I was one of those teens who reinvented myself annually. I was emo and goth, scene and preppy, vintage and modern, outside and inside of normal. With each new girl I built I took pieces from the previous design and either kept or threw them away. I kept crazy hair colors and red lipstick, threw away raccoon eyeliner and most of my mental weight. In this way, I found and created who I am today—yet another reinvention in the process of happening.
If you’re looking for an untraditional young adult book full of 1990s rock and roll, sexual adventures and encounters, the strong bonds of family, and a coming-of-age narrative then please give How to Build a Girl a chance. Trust me, once you get past the masturbation and into the true narrative things get better. Just like life I guess.