Tumbling the building blocks: A review of Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl

Cover of How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

“So what do you do when you build yourself—only to realize you built yourself with the wrong things?”

How To Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

 It is 1990 and Johanna Morrigan is fourteen years old, living in Wolverhampton, a city in the English West Midlands, with her unemployed rock-star-wannabe father, depressed mother, two brothers, and twin babies. Johanna has more childcare duties and financial worries than any teenage girl should have to deal with and she ultimately dreams of finding a way out.

In order to make this happen, Johanna reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde–fast talking, hard drinking Lady Sex Adventurer and freelance music journalist. Johanna is determined to build herself in the best way she knows how: on the fly. As Johanna navigates her way through this adult world as a working class girl, her notes are as follows:

How to Build a Girl

By sixteen, Johanna is living the life of lots of sex, lots of drug, and lots of rock ‘n’ roll all in an attempt to build herself, but she soon wonders if during all these wild adventures whether she has gone about this whole “building herself business” in all the wrong ways, and can she change it?

How to Build a Girl is a fast- paced tale of a working class girl whose brains and way with words ensure that her everyday actions will lead to wild parties and unexpected opportunities that allow her to escape the drudgery that is Wolverhampton and somehow find success in the most round-about manner feasible.

This new book reads very much like Moran’s semi-autobiography; she also grew up in a large working class family and became a successful music journalist at a young age (although Moran declares it is pure fiction). Whatever the truth is, Moran has created an authentic teenage voice through her character Johanna. Moran puts the pubescent roller coaster on full display from the exaggerated emotional response to ANYTHING and EVERYTHING to the self-conscious body image moments in front of the mirror.

While Johanna is often over the top and highly excitable in all that she does, it is a very true-to-life portayal. Everyone as a teenager has had moments of exclaiming that it is the end of the world as he or she knows it because this or that happened etc. I believe I said this more than once while growing up…I sometimes still say it on occasion.

How to Build a Girl is also very frank about sex, specifically female sexuality. Moran does not shy away from the subject, but places it front and centre with a wank (specifically, Johanna masturbating in the dead of night next to her sleeping brother with a pillow between them for privacy, because, yes, young girls have urges too and those urges need to be satisfied). Aside from the occasional wank, Johanna also goes out and has lots of sex with lots of different people because, as Moran puts it, “it is what young teenage girls will do. It’s what I did. It’s what my friends did.” Moran said her intention behind this book and the character Johanna is to reclaim the word “slag” and “slut” from society’s shaming culture and renaming it fun names, such as “lady sex pirate” or “swash fuckler.” It’s not about shaming but experiencing. When I attended Moran’s launch at the Toronto Public Library’s Appel Salon, she described the teenage girl’s life in the perfect fashion: “It is about going out and having amazing experiences and awful experiences, which later turn into amazing anecdotes.” And she’s right, you know. After all, how many of us have gone out for drinks talking about our latest adventure in bed or otherwise, both good and bad? All of us, I would think.

While the reader may not be able to relate to everything Johanna goes through in the book, it is all honest and it is all written in a hilarious fashion that only Caitlin Moran is capable of. You may not always be able to say, “I’ve done that,” but you don’t mind going along for the ride with this fun and easy read.

Essentially, How to Build a Girl is about class, social privilege, feminism, and building yourself and rebuilding yourself as you go through life. Johanna may think she has the right building blocks at first, but she soon learns there is no right or easy way to build yourself. Johanna Morrigan is a beautiful work in progress and Caitlin Moran’s book ends with a promise that we haven’t seen the last of this spunky teenage girl.

5 out of 5 book thumbs up

Image of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs upImage of a green book giving the thumbs up

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran, published in Canada by HarperCollins Canada, © 2014

Available at Indigo, Amazon, and independent bookstores everywhere.

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