How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

In brief: In Johanna’s family, money is tight. Things get increasingly tense after Johanna embarrasses herself on television and welfare investigates her Dad’s sickness benefits. There’s only one thing to do and that’s to become Dolly Wilde, music critic extraordinaire…

The good: Funny and never boring.

The not-so-good: Sometimes I just wanted Johanna to stop and think for a moment, rather than wander into another crazy situation.

Why I chose it: Have wanted to read this since I first heard about it and reserved it at the library.

Year: 2014

Pages: 343

Publisher: Random House (Ebury Press)

Setting: England

My rating: 9 out of 10

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran came out late last year and there was a ton of good book buzz about it – the cover! The story! The wit! Unfortunately for me I was feeling rather poor at the time and immobile due to a broken foot bone so I did the sensible thing and reserved it at the library. Feeling rather smug that I was number one in the queue, I settled to wait to read this book. Finally, after Christmas I received the email from the library I’d been waiting for. Was the book worth a three month waiting list? You bet.

How to Build a Girl is funny, self-depreciating and witty. It’s a coming of age novel that a lot of us wish that we’d experienced (well – most of it. Not the acute cystitis/sitting in a bath with a band thing). It celebrates youth, music and making but wrong choices but eventually putting things right. The only thing I have a tiny doubt about is that my library group categorised this as YA – from an adult perspective, I think a 13 or 14 year old girl is going to get a hell of a good education here, perhaps a bit much too soon. However, if I was the said 13 or 14 year old girl, I’d love this book to bits and change my name to Dolly Wilde (and the sex would probably be nothing new).

The book tells the story of Johanna Morrigan, a slightly overweight, not very remarkable teacher growing up in Wolverhampton, England in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Her dad is on sickness benefits and things are tight money wise in the family. Johanna feels that teenage need to reinvent herself, become someone else who can make a difference to her family’s life after she accidentally mentions her dad’s benefit status. So she becomes Dolly Wilde, top hat wearing Gothic guru of all things indie music. It’s not an easy thing to do, teach yourself the latest ins and outs of the music scene when you wait on the library list for months to access CDs (we have something in common, Johanna/Dolly). But she does it; becoming a teenage music writer, attending a lot of cool gigs and getting a ton of blag. In addition, there’s the men, sex, smoking and drinking. Has Johanna created a monster in Dolly?

Johanna was an immediately likeable character for me – she’s blunt and unapologetic. She’s determined and honest. She bares her soul with the reader, discussing sex and masturbation from the opening lines. But there’s also a vulnerability about her, despite the hard shell she tries to build. What I loved about Johanna is that she went for whatever she wanted, no holds barred. There were no gender politics holding her back and she didn’t care that her music magazine colleagues were all men. She’s just a person and equal to everyone else. She’s also got the guts to work out when she does something wrong and fix it. Johanna’s wry cynicism was another plus for me.

I loved Johanna’s brothers and sisters too. Krissi, her sweet older brother was a quiet voice of reason while Lupin, the younger brother is plain cute. I would have liked to have read more about Krissi coming out and more about their mother’s postpartum depression. (An idea for another book, perhaps?) The Morrigan family was quirky, but real in their struggles. The description of Wolverhampton and its history were also really interesting (I ended up looking it up on Wikipedia) – it’s a place I’ve not heard much about. But most of all, I loved the tone of this book. It’s refreshingly honest and Johanna kept me turning the pages. I think my library should buy another copy for the adult fiction shelves because this is one of the best (and funniest) coming of age stories I’ve read for a long time.


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