In a nutshell: A Jacqueline Wilson novel with added sex and swearing
How long: 3 days
Where I finished it: Curled up in a chair at 5am, awake for no good reason
Favourite quote: Today, like every other day, I’m going to go to bed still a fat virgin who writes their diary in a series of imaginary letters to sexy Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables.
Would I read it again: It feels like I’ve already read it twice as it is
To be honest, and as much as I hate to speak ill of Caitlin Moran, I was a little disappointed by this book. For one thing it says very clearly at the beginning that it is not based on her life, that it is a work of fiction, but there are a few too many similarities for me to buy that. Surely the whole point of writing a novel, rather than a memoir, is that you can do something completely different. But Johanna Morrigan came from a large family, like Caitlin Moran, who survived on benefits, like Caitlin Moran, lived on a council estate in Wolverhampton, like Caitlin Moran, relied on the local library for most of her education, like Caitlin Moran, and broke into the music industry as a critic at a very young age, like Caitlin Moran. And I suppose I wouldn’t mind so much if she hadn’t already produced a TV series, loosely based on her life, with similar characters in a similar situation. And a nonfiction book which covers many of the same themes. And multiple columns which tell many of the same anecdotes.
And not only are the setting and background eerily similar but the voice of the main character is exactly the same. Is she incapable of writing from any point of view other than a slightly overweight Midlander with a crazy dress sense and insatiable sexual appetite?
But now I really must find something positive to say about this book as I’m veering dangerously close to the kind of bitchy, overly critical review that the plot of How to Build a Girl warns against. I don’t want to be cynical. I don’t want to be part of the reason my generation won’t have a recognisable culture.
Fortunately I don’t actually have to think that hard to come up with some positive things to say about it. For one thing, as with everything Caitlin Moran does, it’s funny. Perhaps not her funniest – there were only two laugh out loud moments – but a sort of constant comic undertone.
It was also quite quietly though provoking, which I hadn’t expected. The idea that throughout your teenage years you are building your own girl really struck a chord with me. Sometimes you get it wrong and have to tear it down and start again from scratch but that’s the point of being a teenager. Experimenting and finding out what works and hopefully reaching adulthood with a self-assurance and sense of identity, which I certainly didn’t. Which makes me wish I could have read this book when I was a bit younger, so that I could have been told that it’s ok to mess up and start again, to make a complete fool of yourself and just mark it down to experience, rather than having to find out for myself.
I believe I read somewhere that this is the first part of a trilogy and as much as I might have been very harsh on the book in the first half of this review, truth is I would without a doubt read a sequel. And if you’ve never experienced Caitlin Moran before then this is as good a place as any to start. Perhaps a better place. Perhaps kick it off with How to Build a Girl at about 17, watch Raised by Wolves at 19, read How to be a Woman at 21 and finish it all off with Moranthology in your mid-20s. Because as much as the themes might be a bit repetitive, read in this order her books almost act as a handbook on how to successfully grow up. And I can’t think of any other examples of authors tackling this transition with as much authority and brutal honesty as she is.