Reviewed by Cal Cleary
I never really thought about it before, but being a critic is a lot like being a teenager. You’re judged heavily on what you like (and doubly on what you dislike), nobody trusts you, and you have to flail around quite a bit as you invent a personality for yourself (There will be flailing. There’s always flailing.) and put it out there in ways you never did before. Johanna Morrigan, the poor, fat, virginal outcast and protagonist of How to Build a Girl, gets it. As an awkward dork living in poverty in the early 1990s, she doesn’t have a lot of ways to express herself – but she has her words. Disgusted by the person she is, Johanna invents a new her wholesale: Dolly Wilde, a world-weary hell-raising teen who knows what’s cool (hint: not you) and isn’t afraid to tell you in scathing reviews. But as her fledgling career as a music critic takes off, she finds it harder and harder to turn the person she made up to get in the door into the kind of woman she wants to become.
Like the recently-reviewed The Hollow Ground, How to Build a Girl is a bit shaggy. This semi-autobiographical novel covers fairly similar territory, featuring as its lead a young woman with a drunk father and a distant mother, a girl who desperately wishes she was something more than she is. It is a coming of age story specific to Generation X, but universal in its depiction of the constant struggle to find a balance between cynicism and enthusiasm, between who you are and who you wish you were. But How to Build a Girl is funny, too, as Johanna has a unique outlook and a tendency to put her foot in her mouth as she tries to fake it ’til she makes it. This is a book bursting with personality, with wit, with originality.
It’s also bursting with sexuality, as our female narrator is quite open about her desire to lose her virginity, her masturbatory habits, her sexual conquests (once they come), and more. This is a frank, funny look at burgeoning female sexuality that shocks its readers into laughter with astonishing confidence – and frequency. Early musings on her youthful obsession with masturbation let readers know immediately that this is going to be a fairly graphic work when it comes to sex, but things really get cooking once she actually starts sleeping with other people. By the time she’s describing her experience with a man so well-endowed she was laid up for two days afterwards, you’ll either be disgusted or laughing your ass off.
How to Build a Girl is, in other words, a blast. A vulgar, unpredictable blast, sure, but it’s a good time spent with a fascinating lead character. Author Caitlin Moran, whose own history closely mirrors Johanna’s, has a keen observational eye, and while her exuberance occasionally outpaces her technical prowess, her gift for creating lived-in characters and mining comedy from uncomfortable situations is a powerful draw. Like Dolly Wilde, Johanna’s relentless alter-ego, How to Build a Girl is a bit rough, a bit raw, a bit too much – but like Johanna herself, there’s a core of sweetness, of unbridled enthusiasm, that brings it all together and keeps the book from becoming a slog.
Cal Cleary is a librarian and critic in small-town Ohio. You can read more of his work at his blog, The Comical Librarian, and you can follow him on Twitter @comicalibrarian.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Harper. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.