How to Build a Girl: A Novel by Caitlin Moran (HarperCollins Publishers, 341 pages)
Since Britain’s Caitlin Moran published her nonfiction book How to Be a Woman a few years ago, she’s been compared to Tina Fey and Lena Dunham. Like Fey’s Bossypants and Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, How to Be a Woman is funny and feminist — and raunchy (in this collection of autobiographical stories, Moran writes about things like why the porn industry needs more variation; what she calls her lady parts; and why it needs to be less faux pas when females opt not to Brazilian wax).
But her most recent work, How to Build a Girl, is more like Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle. It’s a semi-autobiographical underdog-coming-of-age kind of story about rising above poverty through self-reinvention, journalism and humor. Moran spares nothing.
Moran, like Walls, grew up poor. She was born and raised in Wolverhampton, England, the eldest of eight children living in a tiny house. She’s said in interviews the claustrophobia of that home and her need to move forward pushed her to become successful at a young age; at 15, she won The Observer’s Young Reporter of the Year award, and at 16, she began her career as a music journalist for Melody Maker.
Now 39, she’s still successful; she was was named Columnist of the Year by the British Press Awards in 2010 and Critic and Interviewer of the Year in 2011 for her work in The Times of London. How to Be a Woman was a New York Times bestseller when it debuted here in 2013.
So I found it hard not to speculate how much of How to Build a Girl was actually true. The protagonist is teenager Johanna Morrigan, who, like Moran, grew up in Wolverhampton in a home too small for her family during the late ’80s and early ’90s. Johanna is also a bookworm (her education is basically reading the entire library); also wins a writing contest as a young teen; and also nails job with a music publication shortly after.
Johanna resolves she’ll write her family out of poverty, just like Jo March in Little Women. And so she does; shortly after being hired, she quits school and commutes to London full time to write music reviews and interview famous artists. Dolly Wilde — her penname — becomes reputable for her nasty pen, her addiction to cigarettes, her pornographic letters to rock stars and her self-given title, “Lady Sex Adventurer.” Her favorite questions to ask artists, off the record, are about their secret sex fantasies.
Remember, she’s still only 16.
The glory of the book is in the hilarious details. (Like, before she takes up music journalism, she writes a novel about a very fat girl who rides a dragon around the world while doing good deeds.)
As a reader, I would have felt insanely sorry for Johanna — her dad’s an alcoholic/drug addict, and she’s poor, friendless, fat and has embarassing, Bridget Jones’s Diary-like moments — had she not been one of the funniest and most likeable characters I’ve read, ever.
For example, as prize for winning a poetry contest, Johanna “gets” to read her poem on Midlands Weekend, a Friday night TV show. (“Now Johanna, I have to ask you a question.” “It would be inappropriate for us to go on a date, Alan.”) After her reading, TV show Alan asks Johanna about her dog, to whom the poem was written; somehow, the interview ends with Johanna’s dramatic, all-in impression of Scooby-Doo, complete with howls.
Though she takes on a full-time journalism career at 16, Johanna’s problems and dreams are still very teenage girl-ish, funny and weird. Her first major crushes are Gilbert Blythe (from Anne of Green Gables) and Gonzo (the Muppet), and her wishes are to be successful and sexy (“Primarily, I want to move to London, and be hot.”).
Moran’s fearless, silly and raunchy humor is a major charm to How to Build a Girl, but it’s not the only one. The journey Johanna takes, while scandalously rock ’n’ roll, is a universal one about growing up. When Dolly Wilde becomes a household name in the music review world, she’s struck with the realization she’s become somebody.
“The thrill is giddying — letters start appearing about me on the letters page, bands talk about me in interviews. For someone who lives in a house without mirrors, seeing yourself talked about by others is exhilarating.”
Music aficionados and people who enjoy self-deprecating humor will get a kick out of How to Build a Girl, but the real pleasure is rooting for Johanna, whose odds are stacked against her.