How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
3 out of 5 stars
In How to Build a Girl Moran tells the story of fifteen-year old Johanna, who grows up on a council estate in Wolverhampton. This is a sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll coming-of-age story. As it happens this is the story I’ve always wanted to read as a teenager because it combines the journey of finding out who you are with the passion for music. It is about growing up in a socially and financially unstable environment and about how that should not hold you back.
All in all the premise is rather brilliant, in my opinion.
BUT! I am actually sorry that there is a but – more than one – becuase I love Moran’s attitude and writing. But there are several things about this book that did not add up in the end. First of all, I never got the feeling that Johanna (the protagonist) actually had any passion for music. She does have a passion for writing; and music is merely her vehicle for putting her writing out into the world – and to earn money in order to save her family. At one point the narrator says “I started to write about music because I loved it” but she actually did it to earn money in the first place. Johanna gets into writing rock reviews for a magazine not because she knows anything about rock music, but because she is a fairly talented writer. She fakes her way all the way to the top of music reviewing without having any real knowledge about the music or bands. And because of this the narrator can never convey any real love of music. She seems to detached from the music fandom; like someone looking at it from the outside and not as a part of it. Johanna could be writing book reviews or cooking recipes for all it matters. Of course we need Johanna to be introduced to the rock’n’roll circus in order for her to have all the crazy wild sex adventures and meet all these drug- and self-addicted rockstars.
Which brings me to the second thing I disliked about this novel. It is simply not believable. Johanna describes herself as fat and ugly. Although most teenagers seem to see themselves that way, with Johanna there seems to be a certain truth to this as she is perceived that way by other people too. However, this fat awkward girl who doesn’t know anything about music manages to get herself not only into a national music magazine but also has sex with A LOT of guys from the industry and is celebrated as some kind of super-dirty sex trophy. I just don’t buy it.
On the other hand, this story is partly based on Moran’s life. Which is noticeable because she tends to recycle things from her autobiography (How to be a Woman). And she does this almost word for word. There are passages in this novel that I have read exactly like this in How to be a Woman. I felt a bit cheated. Why did Moran feel the need to repeat herself simply to produce a YA novel? Especially because it would have been a lot more authentic as a memoir.
Also, why is this marketed as a YA novel? Just because the protagonist is a teenage girl? Because I fail to find any other reason for this. The narrator is not 15-year old Johanna but an adult version of her. No, that’s not completely true. Moran switches between narrators again and again. This sometimes happens in the course of a paragraph. The tone changes to that of an adult looking back on the mistakes she made as a teen. It actually becomes a bit preachy and condescending and does not fit the style of the YA perspective at all. And the fact that the setting is the late 80’s and early 90’s does not help either. If this is aimed at someone who is a teenager in 2014 they will hardly get the references – I’m almost 30 and I didn’t know half the bands mentioned here – and yes, I like rock music.
This is effectively a memoir with a few details changed for dramatic purposes. And I, for my part, would have been a lot more interested in a detailed memoir of Moran’s life than an over-the-top fictionalization of it.
Don’t get me wrong, this was a fun read! And it had some fairly truthful and beautiful passages that my teenage-self actually could relate to. In a way this is the coming-of-age story that I always wanted to write. I love Caitlin Moran and her writing. I am just not sure if she picked the right genre for herself. Also, she needs to get her Star Wars references straight! Leia did not get Han to kiss her “before they swung across a chasm” – that was Luke!
But like I said, I love Caitlin Moran and I wanted to love this book. And I think there are some (teenage) girls (and boys) out there who would appreciate this wild coming-of-age story. So what I am going to do is end this review with a really beautiful quote from the book; and a – at least to me – very accurate description of being a teenager.
“Because what you are, as a teenager, is a small, silver, empty rocket. And you use loud music as fuel, and then the information in books as maps and co-ordinates, to tell you where you’re going.”