Book Review: How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

Here is my review in all its original smutty glory.

Actually, I have a confession to make: I don’t consider the reviews I write reviews at all, not according to the Wikipedia definition anyway: ‘A book review is a form of literary criticism in which a book is analyzed based on content, style, and merit.’

Once upon a time I wrote those kinds of reviews, now I guess I just talk about what the books mean to me.

How to Build a Girl reminded me of growing up ‘fat’ and doubtful in 1980s Batu Pahat, Johor. Left to my own devices I would not have doubted anything, least of all myself, but encouraged by some friends and some family members, I suffered from periodical bouts of self-hate and self-doubt. Sure, I should not have let what they say get to me, but hey, that was before I knew anything about life, or myself, way before I became the fabulous Me that’s typing this post.

Anyway, I should perhaps write a post about being a ‘fat’, sexually-frustrated teenager for my personal blog. It would be a book-length post though, so perhaps I should think of writing a memoir. That would be one way to get thrown out of the country.

Until then, my review of How to Build a Girl

An edited version of this review was published on 27th October, 2014 in The Star

how to build a girlHOW TO BUILD A GIRL
Author: Caitlin Moran
Publisher: Ebury Press, 340 pages

WHERE was Caitlin Moran when I needed her? Where was she when I was a 14-year-old in seedy Batu Pahat, Johor, told by my “best friend” that I couldn’t be in the Teachers Day concert because I was too fat and people would laugh?

Where was she when I told the pastiest, most sanctimonious of the altar boys at St Henry’s Catholic Church that I fancied him and he said that he would go out with me if I lost weight, but he really couldn’t overlook my size no matter how smart, witty and well-read I was?

Moran reveals, in the semi-autobiographical novel How to Build a Girl and the wholly autobiographical How to Be a Woman, that she didn’t spring fully armed and fabulous a la Athena, from her father’s forehead. She made mistakes and was as much of an idiot as anyone, and that’s why I would have killed, at 13, at 16, and even at 20 and 24 for a book about a fat, clever girl who wasn’t dieting every minute of the day, who was making mistakes and feeling lost, but who was also doing and thinking interesting things, and finding herself, and having a generally shabby life, but also some moments of utter brilliance, thanks very much.

In the penultimate chapter of the book, the heroine Johanna Morrigan asks,“So what do you do when you build yourself – only to realise you built yourself with the wrong things?”

“You rip it up and start again,” she answers.

You mean, you have to invent yourself? Oh yes. Again and again. And again. The building takes years, and what you’ve built will sometimes be monstrous, sometimes a joke, and frequently a mistake. But, bit by bit, ever so slowly, you will figure out what works and what doesn’t, who you should hang out with and whom you should banish from your life forever, what you should continue to strive for, and what you should give up as a lost and dangerous cause, and you will cobble it all together and end up with … you. Perfectly imperfect you.

One of the things kids are told growing up is that they should be themselves. “Just be yourself, Daph. If anyone asks you to change, then they don’t really care about you.”

Oh yeah?

“Yes, just be yourself, but try to lose some weight and maybe stop being so argumentative and bad tempered. You’re special. Don’t ever change.”

The problem with trying to be yourself at 13 is that there’s hardly any “yourself” to be in the first place. You’re still making it up, experimenting on versions of you, being the Aloof Intellecual one day and the Eccentric Artist the next. Of course, when you’re in the middle of all of it, you usually don’t realise what you’re doing. You just think you’re a confused mess and everyone else thinks, “Hormones”!

Moran/Johanna talks all about the invention of the real you in Chapter 24 of How to Build a Girl. If you’re a teenage girl you should go to a bookstore right now and read this chapter. You should of course buy and read the whole book, but if, for some reason, this is not an option, then you should just read the chapter. In fact, email me and I’ll send the chapter to you.

I wish this book had existed when I was in my teens. Oh, the comfort and reassurance it would have provided.

I was an angry, fat and stroppy girl, and, unfortunately, working out that being angry, fat and stroppy were the right things for me to be left innumerable scars – physical, psychic, emotional. Hence, I remember my struggles all too well and I know reading something like this would have helped a great deal.

Johanna Morrigan describes her life as “The Bell Jar written by Adrian Mole”. She is the second of five children, a fat 15-year-old living in a council estate in Wolverhampton, a fan of 19th century novels and a chronic masturbator. She also writes. She writes so well that she is offered a freelance job at a music magazine (loosely based on Melody Maker, the weekly music rag Moran wrote for, at 16). Thus begins the adventures of Dolly Wilde (the name she adopts, inspired by Oscar Wilde’s hard-drinking niece).

High on Johanna’s list of aspirations is to be kissed and to have sex. Her new life as Dolly Wilde, music journalist, does eventually lead to her having lots and lots of sex. Later, when Johanna, older and wiser at 17, has an epiphany about her life and makes lists of stuff to keep and stuff to discard, she decides, emphatically, that “having sex with as many people as possible” is something she wants to keep on doing.

I love that. I love how unapologetically into sex Johanna is. I love how sex is portrayed as pleasurable and interesting, and also as a natural part of life that it’s perfectly OK to want to experience. Yes, even if you’re a girl.

Also, masturbation.

Masturbation (how, when, what-to-use) is something hardly any fiction describes, let alone fiction about adolescent girls, let alone in as snortingly funny and identifiable a way as Moran describes it.

OK, sex (including masturbation) is no laughing matter when you’re 16 and unloved by all but yourself, but that’s why it’s important to read about other 16-year-olds’ fumbling, stumbling experiments with men and deodorant bottles.

Most important, it’s a blessed relief when you’re fat, or whatever version of teenhood is indicated by your siblings, classmates and MTV to be unshaggable, to read that this is truly not a stumbling block when it comes to rolls in the hay or the back of a Proton Wira.

And before anyone rushes off to write that angry email demanding how I dare suggest that getting laid is more important than getting good grades, I’m not. If, however, there are teenage girls reading this who think about sex more than about their grades, I just want to say, it’s OK. You’ll recognise yourself in this book and rest assured, you’re not crazy or evil, you’re quite normal. After all, hormones!

Moran has promised that How to Build a Girl will be followed by How To Be Famous and How To Change The World, but in the meantime, if you enjoy Girl, and crave for more of Moran’s blunt, merciless yet rather tender brand of wit, there’s How to Be a Woman, a guide to being fabulous … no matter your dress size.

cailtlin moran
Caitlin Moran


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