How to Build a Girl is the first novel from feminist extraordinaire Caitlin Moran. I have written before how much I loved loved loved her first book, How to be a Woman. I finished it and immediately ordered four copies to give to other women so they could understand and appreciate the pleasure that was intelligently written well-argued unapologetic feminism. It is a great book and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone.
As we discovered in How to be a Woman, Caitlin Moran grew up in poverty in an industrial town, Wolverhampton, that suffered a sharp decline in the Thatcher years. With a weight problem, a father on disability benefits and a mother whose full-time occupation was looking after a brood of children, her childhood was not easy. Moran left school and home young and became a music journalist and, from there, the success that she is today. The protagonist of How to Build a Girl is Johanna Morrigan, a plump girl who lives in Wolverhampton, an industrial town that suffered a sharp decline in the Thatcher years. With a weight problem, a father on disability benefits and a mother whose full-time occupation was looking after a brood of children, Johanna's life was not easy. The novel follows her path to adulthood, including leaving school young to become a music journalist.
The duplication of material was one of the two major issues I had with the novel. Although the novel opens with a note where Moran clearly states the book is fictional: "But Johanna is not me. Her family, colleagues, the people she meets and her experiences are not my family, my colleagues, the people I met or my experiences. This is a novel and it is all fictitious.", a lot of the story is familiar from How to be a Woman. I imagine, given the similarities in the titles, there was a conscious decision to almost "pair" the two titles. However, the crossover in material made reading the book a bit repetitious, like I was rereading a story instead of discovering it for the first time. I found this a bit irritating, because if I'd wanted to reread How to be a Woman, I could have just picked up the copy sitting on the shelf in my living room.
The second issue I had with the book was that I just couldn't figure out who its audience was. It opens with Johanna deciding that she needs to die - not literally, but figuratively, so she can reinvent herself as a new person who can save her family from a life of poverty. I get this - part of being a teenager is trying on new identities until you find one that fits; in which you can feel comfortable and yourself. In this section, her family is close and loving and a key component of her life. But then, once Johanna has successfully transformed herself into music columnist, she then becomes a lady sex explorer and all of a sudden can stay out all night without her previously close family remarking upon it or making a big deal. That did not feel real to me at all. I also found it really hard to keep track of time in the novel - near the end, it's revealed that Johanna has been a music journalist for two years, but before then time isn't marked in any way - the narrative is just a series of events without any way to mark the passage of time, like birthday parties or Christmas. Until I read that sentence, I didn't know if she'd been writing for two months or several years. There are also some strange moments where the point of view shifts to a woman 20 years in the future looking back on their youth, which sits really oddly with the first-person point-of-view of 16 (or 17 or 18)-year-old Johanna. The language is sexually explicit enough that it is excluded from the YA market but who else is that interested in coming of age stories about teenage girls? (Although, how awesome is it that this is not about the coming of age of a middle-class white man!! As a society we have reached peak white man coming of age stories, please stop writing them, white middle-class men.)
Those (major) quibbles aside, there is a lot to like about this book. Moran is a very funny writer and is completely apologetic about bring up all of the stuff that teenagers really think about, like masturbation and first kisses and the powerlessness that comes with being too young to really do anything to fix any of the problems you see around you. Her descriptions of the everyday poverty she lived in were really sad and an indictment of a first-world wealthy country who should be doing better for their families in need. I was entertained (if slightly confused) throughout the whole book, which is really super important. I think this book was one draft and one change-of-career-for-the-protagonist away from being a really excellent novel - three stars.