How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, 328 pp, RL: YA
For a truly superlative, clear-eyed review of How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, I beg you to read Ann Friedman's review for the New York Times Book Review. Read on for my somewhat personal, reflective, rambling review that is really a thank you, tribute and plea to get everyone to like (and share) the writing of brilliant, funny, articulate women like Moran - and Tina Fey, (Tina, if you are reading this, I had this idea back in 2012 for a really great YA novel you could write and I was too shamed by my boss at the time for what he saw as the apparent ridiculousness of wanting to share an idea with someone who is not a client to pass it on to your agent. Call me.) and Amy Poehler, (her book, YES PLEASE, comes out this month) - with young girls, especially those who are also brilliant, funny and articulate and not necessarily traditionally beautiful because they REALLY, REALLY NEED IT. The closest I got to a mentor when I was a kid was Judy Blume, and she only spoke to me from the pages of her books. She didn't have a media presence that I could tune into and emulate and learn from. She was not on the Merv Griffin show talking about what it means to be a girl. However, Steve Martin was on the Merv Griffin show singing his hit song King Tut in full pharaoh regalia and when my quiet, reserved, father (read: did not communicate with me after the age of eight except to say things like, "You ARE NOT wearing that v-neck sweater out of this house backwards today!" or give me what I perceived to be a withering look of disappointment and disapproval when I became loud at the dinner table) called me into the room to see Martin's intelligent absurdity, I TOOK NOTE. Humor! Comedy! Brains! This was how I could get my father's (and possibly ALL boys'?) attention! I promptly asked him to take me to the record store (The Wherehouse on Wilshire) so that I could purchase Martin's albums, Let's Get Small and Wild and Crazy Guy with my babysitting money. I began staying up to watch Saturday Night Live, which wasn't hard because it was after The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. It wasn't until I was well into adulthood that I finally got his joke about holding up Farrah Fawcett's iconic swimsuit poster with one hand.
From there, I began to build my girl, which turned out to be more like Frankentein's monster with chopped up parts and pieces slapped on and taken off and years of low self-esteem and bad clothes. Part of the problem was that I was growing up in a time when male role models were, for the most part, (for funny, smart, brown haired, pudgy girls) all there was to turn to. I knew I would never, ever look like Farrah Fawcett even when, as a seven-year-old, I played with my tiny Jill Munroe doll in her white, polyester jumpsuit and miniature black boots. Comedy never quite worked for me in the ways that I wish it had - in the ways that I know it would have if I had had a copy of Bossypants to pore over along with the librarian fetish that Liz Lemon spawned, no matter how short-lived. And being smart and funny tended to make me feel worse about myself then it would have if I had had a copy of Moran's memoir, How to Be a Woman, to tell me that I was actually okay and that I didn't need to be what everyone (television, magazines, teachers - yes, I had a teacher in High School who was "down" with the students tell me, when I asked him during my junior year, why he thought I couldn't get a boyfriend, that I should lose weight. I later found out that he was literally down with the students and had had an affair with a (thin) friend during our freshman year and that his second wife had been a (thin) cheerleader at our school) was telling me that I, as a girl/woman should be. Was I even supposed to be a woman? Was it strident to call myself that, rather than girl, at the age of eighteen? I didn't know. But I did know the definition of the word "strident," and I also knew that it was an adjective reserved for women only, much like "bitch," which, at the time, you could not say on t.v. Before I continue on, I must acknowledge Lena Dunham and her current best-selling memoir, Not that Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's "Learned." Not having HBO and being older than 40, I can only give a nod to Dunham and the inroads she is making for smart, funny, non-traditionally beautiful girls, but cannot comment fruther. I have seen her movie Tiny Furniture and approve of her children's book-themed tattoos, but that's where my experience ends. However, I know that the world is a better place with her in it because of the public conversations she has started over body shaming in the media and her ardent, articulate refusal to succumb to it.
So, the novel. As Friedman writes, "Moran's novel [How to Build a Girl] shows what her manifesto [How to Be a Woman] tells." If you don't know Moran or her manifesto, she is a popular, award-winning columnist in the UK who started her career as a music journalist with a short-lived MTV-style television show when she was still a teen. How to Be a Woman is a collection of essays in which she discusses that which we women usually get withering stares from others when discussing out loud. Things like masturbation, pubic hair, why you shouldn't have children, why you should have children, and having an abortion. And she is SO hilarious and smart in doing so. And, I am especially happy to add that she can write FICTION really well too. It was hard not to compare her novel with her essays while reading How to Build a Girl, but there were moments where I slipped deeply into the fictional world (a world held together by autobiographical Spanx) she created (the snail farm she sets up with her brothers, including snails named Lesbian Dennis and Chrissie Hynde, the neighbor Violet with the husband who does not look like a "hot Resistance fighter from the Second War.") I bookmarked several passages in How to Build a Girl that I wanted to quote from, but my review grew so long I couldn't, except for a few here: "I'm very into the idea of sorting things out through superior paperwork. This is my favorite transformatory power." And, "he found me laying facedown and crying onto a sanitary towel, which I had positioned under my eyes by way of acknowledging the sheer volumes of sorrow." And many more that I can't actually print here because, besides being smart and funny, Moran is especially these things when writing about things like sex and bodily functions. How to Build a Girl is sort of a kinder, gentler, younger version of How to Be a Woman, with self-harm taking the place of an abortion in terms of age appropriate, serious, mildly taboo content. It's also told in flashback, which takes the edge off of it, to a certain degree. However, Caitlin Moran and the main character of How to Build a Girl, Johanna Morrigan, are both indomitable and indefatigable in powerful, poignant ways that make them both indispensably amazing.
In 1990, seventeen-year-old Johanna Morrigan is an overweight, poor, an autodidact who lives in the library (as an escape from the shabby council flat she shares with her large family) and all works referred to and editions are cited, such as Roald Dahl's The BFG (Puffin Books, 1984). And, having grown up in a house with no mirrors, she has just truly seen herself for the first time in the harsh glare of a television monitor. Admitting that she wants to be beautiful so much, "because it will keep me safe, and keep me lucky and it's too exhausting not to be," she has the devastating experience of seeing herself as others see her, realizing that she is "not beautiful at all." In the afterglow of her shame, Johanna decides that she has to kill herself. Figuratively, but the fact that humiliating experiences like hers (pre-digital and post-digital) have long caused teenagers to contemplate or even attempt suicide is not lost on the reader. However, because she is Johanna - smart, creative, industrious and, as I said above, indomitable and indefatigable, this means building a girl. She says, "I don't want to not live. I just . . . want to not be me anymore. Everything I am now is not working." She's not entirely sure who she wants to be, but she does know that she wants to be noble, "profoundly noble. I wish to devote myself to a cause. I want to be part of something. I want to swing into action, like a one-woman army. An arm-me. As soon as I actually find something to believe in, I'm going to believe in it more than anyone else has ever believed in anything, ever. . . [But] I don't want to sacrifice myself for something. I don't want to die for something. I don't even want to walk in the rain up a hill in a skirt that's sticking to my thighs for something. I want to live for something instead - as men do."
Being a writer, she starts with her name. She wants a name that's "thin, and light and powerful like an aluminum glider: I am going to climb onto this name, and wait for a thermal, then fly it all the ay down to London, to my future." Juno Jones, Eleanor Vulpine, Kitten Lithium, Laurel Canyon and Belle Jar all lose out to Dolly Wilde, who happened to be the scandalous, lesbian, alcoholic niece of Oscar Wilde. Dolly Wilde also happens to have black hair, loads of black eyeliner (that is morally oaky to steal because, "I need it. I need it, to draw Dolly Wilde's face onto my own) and a top hat. A mildly humiliating conversation about music with her cousin Ali, the goth, and her friends, leads Johanna to the discovery that she does not want to write a novel about a "fat girl and a dragon," she wants to be a music journalist. This will be her way out. The fuel that gets her to London and maybe even keeps her family from more extreme poverty. Except Johanna/Dolly doesn't have a record collection, she doesn't go to live shows and she doesn't know what's worth writing about. But, she is an autodidact. She begins renting albums from the library, having to wait weeks for the more popular discs, listening to late night, alternative radio shows and writing reviews. By the time she is seventeen she has "borrowed 148 albums from the Central Library" and is an expert on the "indie/alternative music of 1988-92" and Dolly Wilde has an interview with a prominent music magazine, Disc & Music Echo, in London where she decides to "just pretend" to be someone who does know what she is doing, someone who is the "right person for this weird situation."
She also wants to stop being "unkissed" and be a Lady Sex Adventuress who, like James Bond, does not leave a party without shagging or blowing something up. She contemplates the unfairness of begin called a slag (slut) for wanting to be a sex expert and going about getting the qualifications (after all, you wouldn't "denigrate a plumber with a lot of experience fitting bathrooms! . . . "You wouldn't hiss about a vet who'd saved the lives of over three hundred guinea pigs! Well, it's about the same here! I'm learning on the job! I'm expanding my CV!") And she makes mistakes (she drops out of school, writes a article that her boss terms, "fannish," and decides to only rip bands apart in print rather than tell the rest of the world why they should love them, accepts that her partners deriving more pleasure from their experiences than she is and tries too hard to be loved by her posh boyfriend who is really just a friend with benefits) that result in the third and final part of the novel being called, "Rip it Up and Start Again." Because, ultimately, the important message here is that your teens are for inventing and reinventing yourself over and over and the even more important take away from How to Build a Girl is that girls today have role models like Moran, Fey, Poehler and Dunham who will truly serve them well in adult life as women, women who are smart, creative, funny and strong.
Source: Review Copy