STARRED REVIEW
September 23, 2014

Meet your new favorite feminist heroine

By Caitlin Moran
Review by

Newcomers to Caitlin Moran’s candor and upfront feminist sensibility should prepare themselves: How to Build a Girl is an earthy, sometimes outrageous but always funny story about a 1990s teenager from an eccentric family in a Northern England council house who becomes a rock critic.

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Newcomers to Caitlin Moran’s candor and upfront feminist sensibility should prepare themselves: How to Build a Girl is an earthy, sometimes outrageous but always funny story about a 1990s teenager from an eccentric family in a Northern England council house who becomes a rock critic.

Overweight, sexually inexperienced and poor, Johanna Morrigan takes stock and finds herself sadly wanting. She decides to re-create herself, first naming herself after Oscar Wilde’s niece Dolly, known for her wit and tempestuous living, and then choosing a new look: a swoosh of black eyeliner and a top hat (the latter in homage to Slash, of Guns ‘n’ Roses fame). Terrified that her family is going to lose their benefits and convinced that she can make money as a writer (like Jo in Little Women), she lands a gig as a rock critic, tentatively submitting the occasional record critique but quickly moving up the pop journalism ladder to full-length concert reviews and features. Finally, to her delight, she goes from being a “kissless virgin” to, again in her words, a “Lady Sex Adventurer.”   

Moran writes explicitly about sex and brilliantly about music, especially the ways in which adolescents take refuge, express themselves and sometimes even find reasons to live through the work of the artists they love. But class and poverty also play an enormous role in this novel, to Moran’s credit. Johanna’s family and life in Wolverhampton are depicted with dignity and an understanding of how much is at stake.

Like Jo March, Johanna is cheerful, literate and resourceful, much as one imagines the teenage Moran might have been. (Fans of Moran’s feminist manifesto/memoir, How to Be a Woman, will realize that Johanna’s journey resembles Moran’s own trajectory from council housing to magazine staff by the age of 16.) But after putting in so much work to change her life, Johanna finds she doesn’t much like the results. What do you do, she wonders, when you’ve built yourself up, only to realize you’ve used the wrong materials? This sincerely told and truly funny tale provides a sympathetic and enlightening answer.

 

RELATED CONTENT: Read a Q&A with Caitlin Moran about How to Build a Girl.

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How to Build a Girl

How to Build a Girl

By Caitlin Moran
Harper
ISBN 9780062335975

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