How To Build A Girl

So as some of you may know, last week I met Caitlin Moran….

photo (3)

It was pretty amazing. I’ve loved reading her column in the Times magazine whenever I’m home, and greatly enjoyed her award-winning book How To Be A Woman. I’d heard, however, that she isn’t a great speaker – but I found that to be completely untrue. There were more laughs in the Colston Hall that night than I’ve heard at some comedy gigs; it wasn’t just a night promoting her new book, it was a night full of positive feminist feeling, individual pride, gossip, new mottos for life, and stories about periods. Then we waited in line for an hour and a half to meet the woman herself and as you can see….well I had a pretty amazing night.

Because my mum suffered the point of the brand new hardback falling into her foot (ouchie) we got a special dedication, ‘Sorry for the HTBAG (how to build a girl) injury, C x’. And so all I wanted when I got home was to sit down and start reading. Of course, it was half eleven by the time we got back and I had work the next day, plus I already had a couple of books on the go, and then life things happened…

So I didn’t get to start reading until this Thursday just passed. I read a little in the evenings, but mostly during my lunch breaks at work. And I finally finished yesterday, during a post-IKEA lie down.

  So I’ll get right into it…

howtobuildagirlThis highly autobiographical novel follows the late adolescence to early adulthood of Johanna Morrigan in the early nineties. She comes from a working-class family on benefits in Wolverhampton, and loves reading, writing, masturbating, befriending unusual people, and constructing herself from the outside in (fake it til you make it, is the mantra de jour). Her father is a failed musician and an alcoholic, her mother is constantly taken up with the newborn, accidental twins, and Johanna shares a room with her two brothers, Krissi (older) and Lupin (younger). It starts, as every critic ever has decided is incredibly important, with Johanna masturbating. I can’t be bothered to dwell on such a well-dwelt area, so I’ll just say I thought it was an excellent opening. Very Moran, but that’s ok, because that’s the ride you’re settling into with this book, and it drops you right into it.

Over the course of the novel, Johanna drops out of school, gets a job at a music magazine at the age of 16, loses her virginity, tries crap drugs, falls in love with a rockstar and proposes to him in a review, becomes a sardonic and bitchy reviewer, loses her way, finds – not necessarily her way back, but a sign pointing in the direction of the path that leads the right way. It’s a journey full of ‘that’s so true – that thought process is so true’ moments to ‘I can’t believe that just happened’ moments, with lots of laughs and, for me, a few moving pages where Johanna thinks about having lost her virginity and what it really feels like. There are lots of cringe-inducing scenes and several ‘sigh, oh adolescence’ moments. Yes, this is probably more interesting if you’re a girl/woman who is going/has been through this time. But either way it’s probably worth your time because..


This is not a feminist manifesto. This is not a book by a woman solely for women. As Caitlin Moran made perfectly clear in her talk, she is not a man-hater. She also makes this clear in her contribution to the small collection of essays ‘Are Men Obsolete?’. What does come through, however, is how difficult it is to realistically portray the teenage experience (especially when you consider the implications of how many reviewers’ first thoughts were about Johanna’s masturbation). Obviously there is no universal teenage girl experience and Moran doesn’t necessarily attempt to universalise that experience – for instance, I’m pretty sure 99% of teenage girls don’t write reviews for a London music magazine. What she does do, however, is comment on those areas that are sometimes missed out of other teenage fiction

  • masturbation (see above)
  • being a fat lonely teenage girl with hair in the wrong places
  • having siblings who are neither one extreme nor the other (bitter rivals or best of friends)
  • the early 90s experience (obviously not something I was aware of, having been born the year the book ends, but you know what I mean
  • discovering where you fit in the class system – one particularly chapter where Johanna, who comes from a working-class Wolverhampton family, goes to visit her sort-of boyfriend’s posh parental home and meets all his friends, and is struck by the names of his friends, the way they talk, the way they act. She thinks about how people in her society make fun of people like this, these people she is hanging out with. And when she is at the end of her patience after being called his ‘little bit of rough’, she explodes and tells him that he is her experiment, not the other way around – ‘I’m not your little bit of rough, you’re my little bit of posh’ (sic).

While I certainly had an overall positive reaction to this book, and absolutely will recommend it, I have a couple of slightly less positive things to say.

  1. it is very much in style. By this I mean, if you’ve read Caitlin Moran before, you may feel that you’ve been slightly cheated by this book at first as it touches on many (for want of a better word) ‘themes’ covered in How To Be A Woman. HOWEVER this feeling went away over time. Plus usually the only reason you read an author’s second book is to get something new that still has all the things you liked from the first book…so in that way it’s good. This is a complaint I have read a lot in other reviews, but actually found it to pass as the story progressed.
  2. while, as I have said, much of the book is highly relatable, some of the story lacked believability to me. Even if lots of it is based on reality, there were some times when I felt I needed a little more convincing on what was going on, even if that was just an acknowledgment of the incredible scenario.
  3. there wasn’t an overall sense of cohesion in the narrative. Another reviewer on Goodreads has made the point, which I have to agree with on some level, that while this does read like the girl version of The Catcher In The Rye, it is not constructed to be a single, rounded story that leaves you necessarily feeling satisfied in the end. It’s a fantastic story, and I laughed out loud more than once, but while I was immensely happy to sit back and enjoy it, it didn’t feel as though there was any particular reason why this specific part of her life needed to be told.

Don’t get me wrong, that last point doesn’t make this a bad book in my opinion. Like Stephen Fry’s The Liar, this was a book I could just read and read and read, happily, not wanting it to reach the end, not particularly craving a climax – and The Liar is one of my favourite books, ever. The problem with that, however, is that the climax is then, unfortunately, invariably disappointing.

Should I read this book?

It seems I forgot to follow my usual structure today. Ho-hum. I had a lot of thoughts about this bought, barely half of which I have managed to write down, but here’s the conclusion.

Yes, read it. Yes, go out and buy it. Yes, you should read this book. If you are a girl, a boy, a mother, a father, a woman, a man…it’s worth your time. Just read a few pages, and see if it speaks to you. See if it chats to you, makes friends with you, starts to flirt with you a little and gets you a little bit drunk. Then keep reading.

* * * * *

The Book Depository

You can buy the book here:

Because I am trying not to use Amazon in my own half-arsed protest-y way, I’d like to recommend to people that they check out The Book Depository, which is a great, user-friendly site with affordable books ranging from brand new releases to classics, and in many different editions at less-than brand new prices. As I am now officially an affiliate of The Book Depository, I gain a small commission if you use my affiliate link to buy books! Please do check it out, even if you don’t buy anything right now.


One thought on “How To Build A Girl

  1. Pingback: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic | The Spiders' Library

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