How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

How to Build a Girl
Publisher: Harper
Source: Publisher (via TLC Book Tours)

“Wolverhampton, in 1990, looks like something bad happened to it. ‘Something bad did happen to it,’ Dad explains as we go down Cleveland Street. ‘Thatcher.’ My father has a very personal and visceral loathing of Margaret Thatcher. Growing up, my understanding is that, at some point in the past, she bested my father in a fight that he only just escaped from—and that next time they meet it will be a fight to the death. A bit like Gandalf and the Balrog.”

How to Build a Girl

Fourteen year old Johanna is growing up in Wolverhampton. She’s from a too poor, too large family with a drunk father and a depressed mother. If that’s not bad enough, she’s virgin. In her attempt to help her family and escape her life, she so thoroughly humiliates herself that she decides that she will no longer be Johanna. She becomes Dolly Wilde.

“I want to be a self-made woman. I want to conjure myself out of every sparkling, fast-moving thing I can see. I want to be the creator of me. I’m gonna begat myself.”

And she does. Dolly is a hard living freelance music journalist by 16 – very sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Quite literally. She has a lot of sex, does a lot of drugs, all while writing scathing reviews of bands. She’s witty and fun and everything she thought she wanted to be. Isn’t she?

Caitlin Moran’s first young adult book (this is a contentious label) is a smutty, swearing, hilarious, troubled, and empathetic novel. It’s nearly brilliant. It captures what it is to be a teenage girl, even though it covers a range of topics that most teenage girls with never experience. I hope. You don’t need to be or have been a teenage girl to feel the raw emotion that Johanna experiences.

“It is a million times easier to be cynical and wield a sword, than it is to be open-hearted and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish… When cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas… Cynicism means you presume everything will end in disappointment. And this, ultimately, is why anyone becomes cynical. Because they are fearful their innocence will be used against them—that when they run around gleefully trying to cram the whole world in their mouth, someone will try to poison them. Cynicism is, ultimately, fear. Cynicism makes contact with your skin, and a thick black carapace begins to grow—like insect armor. This armor will protect your heart from disappointment—but it leaves you unable to walk. You cannot dance in this armor. Cynicism keeps you pinned to the spot, in the same posture, forever.”

I was surprised by the accessiblilty of Johanna’s story. While it’s not for everyone, there’s quite a bit to appreciate within the novel. Yes, the book is funny. It’s even hilarious, in a female Philip Roth kind of way. But it’s so much more than that. It’s about feeling like a fraud. It’s about growing up and figuring out “who you are” without ever having been given that luxury. It’s about being poor and plain and obscure is a word where that is not valued. And it’s about learning how to build a girl (too obvious?). I liked it. There are a few issues, but there’s a nice balance of absurdity and seriousness. Bonus: the use of the word swashfuckler. 4/5.

Assuming you don’t mind your literature offensive, will you be picking this one up? I’ve seen it everywhere lately. And honestly, what teenager doesn’t want to be a music journalist? In a perfect world, I would be on Bob Dylan’s never ending tour writing his life story.

11 thoughts on “How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

  1. Great review! I’m reading the book right now and it brings back so many memories good and bad of growing up. I really love all of the music references and her description of how certain songs make her feel.


  2. I love it- we both quoted two of the same passages from the book! For me, while the language took a bit of getting used to, I loved this book. I found it inspiring as an adult woman and only wish I could build myself as well as Johanna did herself- minus the booze, drugs and indiscriminate sex, because that sounds exhausting. She knew who she wanted to be and she went for it. I’d love for the teenage girls I know to have that and yet, this is not a book I’d want them to read!


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