Way back in late 2012, in a wrap-up of my favorite books of the year, I mentioned how much a I liked a book of essays by Caitlin Moran. She remains fabulous to follow on Twitter and I read her essays any time I get the chance (her weekly column is behind a paywall, and I can’t quite justify subscribing to a British newspaper just for one column, but things do show up from time to time). But for some reason I had been avoiding her debut novel. I’m not sure why exactly, maybe because I knew it was a coming-of-age story and I was worried that it would be horribly embarrassing and awkward to read about a teenage girl struggling through puberty? But I finally got around to reading it and I loooved it.
How To Build a Girl is fiction, but is obviously largely autobiographical. Moran, like the main character Johanna, was part of a large family growing up poor in 1990s Britain. And she also stumbled into a career as a music writer as a teenager, which is the story the book largely tells. Johanna is a poor, geeky, too-smart-for-her-own-good unpopular kid who decides to reinvent herself and ends up on the edges of the British music scene working as a magazine writer. As you can imagine, sometimes this goes swimmingly and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s fascinating to watch Johanna work out how to present herself, how to talk to people, how to construct a persona for herself–essentially how to be an adult. Which, you know, being an adult is hard and I think most of us are still trying to figure out how to do it. I haven’t seen many books that talk about this process as explicitly as this one does. But it manages to not be at all preachy or new-agey, but entirely practical.
I’m not sure how many of the details come directly from Moran’s life, but all of it feels very true–the family interactions, the fashion and makeup conversations, the music reviews. She and I are roughly the same age and I recognized a lot of the musicians and cultural references of the era, which was fun for me but was definitely an extra and not required to enjoy the book. And I should note that while this may sound like a YA novel, it’s not appropriate in any way. Moran does not shy away from talking about sex and drugs and bodies and crime and all the things that a teenager might encounter, and it’s pretty gritty from the very first page. And yet it didn’t feel exploitative or like Moran is grabbing for attention–it just felt real.
Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Snarky but touching
You might also like: Anything by Caitlin Moran is awesome. And if you haven’t read Tina Fey or Amy Poehler’s books, their stories of teenage adventure match up with Johanna’s very well. Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham (AKA Lorelai Gilmore) is also a clearly-largely-autobiographical-novel about a young woman becoming who she wants to be, and is lovely.
Also, let me take this opportunity to shout out a couple of things that I read on my fellow blog author’s recommendations and thoroughly enjoyed. First, back in July Rebecca raved about Uprooted by Naomi Novik and she was totally right. It was a completely fabulous modern fairy tale. And Anna recently talked about The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, which I liked as well. Ness has another recent release called A Monster Calls, which was also great. Different from The Rest of Us–while that one reminded me of an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, A Monster Calls was more like Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Game–but also great.