Well, it’s been a busy 2016 so far but I’ve finally got around to writing up my first review of the year.
During the Christmas break, I was lucky enough to take advantage of Penguin Book’s ‘Festive Readings’ pop-up at Paddington Station. Selecting Caitlin Moran’s bestselling How To Build a Girl, I walked off with a nice early Christmas present and a hilarious read to carry me on my train journey.
Opening with protagonist Johanna Morrigan masturbating in the bedroom she shares with her brothers, Moran sets the tone for a novel that will take the reader through shock, laughter and recognition as they intimately follow a 14-year-old girl’s journey through adolescence.
And the very fact that it shocks is inherent to one of the problems that Moran seeks to address: the taboo of female sexuality. Initially concerned about her lack of experience with boys, Johanna seeks to become a ‘legend’ in the sex-stakes but soon discovers that the expectations of both society and the men with whom she goes to bed are not what she expected.
Socially insecure, uncertain about her future, and burdened by a family traversing the poverty line, Johanna decides to kill herself. Not literally but through a total reinvention of self – like many teenagers – to shed her overweight, “kissless virgin” self to a London-dwelling music journalist modeled on Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dolly.
The plot follows ‘Dolly’ as she works her way onto the staff of music magazine D&ME, fighting to make it in an all-male workplace which transforms her from an inexperienced teen to a drinking, smoking Sex Adventuress. Moran tackles the debate of why a man who is sexually active is praised whilst a woman is branded a slut, and also explores Dolly’s feelings about sexual pleasure and what she deserves.
It soon becomes clear through that she is building the girl that she thinks she needs to be to succeed, but in the process loses sense of herself in both her relationships and her writing.
Her journey to overcome the limitations that are expected of her working class background and gender explodes at one point as she defiantly tells one of her partners that ‘I’m not your bit of rough. You’re my bit of posh.’ Dolly knows what she wants and, although her journey of self-development is not smooth or straightforward (who’s is?), she soon learns to be herself in the world she wants to be a part of.
How to Build a Girl is a witty, refreshing and personal adventure in how to be what you deserve, not what people tell you you should be.