How to Build a Girl was my first experience of Caitlin Moran’s writing, and if I’m completely honest I just picked it up because it had a yellow cover, and I always pick up yellow covers, at least to read the blurb. The blurb sounded intriguing although a bit ditzy, so I thought I’d give it a go. I had it in mind as a light-hearted, little-thinking-required, ‘easy’ book for when I needed to take a bit of a break from reading while also still reading, and on all those levels it delivered. However, I am happy to admit that I underestimated this book, and that there was more to it than I at first assumed. No, it wasn’t particularly ground breaking and to be honest I don’t think it really does anything new, but I just found it to be really refreshing, really warm-hearted, and exactly what I needed to be reading at that particular time.
Johanna Morrigan is an awkward teenage girl, but let’s be frank, there isn’t really any other type of teenage girl. However, Johanna feels that she is just too awkward. She’s embarrassed herself too many times and she doesn’t have any friends other than her dog, so she decides to completely reinvent herself as Dolly Wilde, become a music journalist, wear stolen eyeliner, and have sex a lot. That’s basically her life plan (for the foreseeable future at least), and so that’s exactly what she does, on all fronts.
It’s a fun story. It’s very funny in places, very sweet in others, and I really enjoyed seeing Johanna’s/Dolly’s family dynamic. I think it’s meant to be a semi-autobiographical story, much like Caitlin Moran’s sitcom Raised by Wolves (which I also really enjoy), although because of this I do feel that we’re seeing the same character (essentially Caitlin) in a variety of different guises, but with the same characteristics, the same flaws, and very strongly with the same voice. Luckily I enjoy these characteristics, these flaws and this voice, but it would be nice to see Caitlin Moran doing something a bit different in future. Despite this, I did really enjoy reading How to Build a Girl. It reminded me a bit of Bridget Jones’s Diary in the sense that it’s told from a funny but self-deprecating main character, and because both Bridget and ‘Dolly’ manage to get themselves into all kinds of ridiculous and squirmingly embarrassing situations. It was definitely entertaining, although my toes did curl for Johanna on occasions. I wanted to tell her how it’s not cool to be mean and spiteful, and being successful as a nasty reviewer isn’t a better situation to be in if you still don’t have any friends. I did appreciate the growth and development in Johanna/Dolly’s character though, even if I could predict exactly how it was going to go. It all felt cosily familiar (not that my teenage life was anything like Johanna’s, because it wasn’t). I was soothed by the awkwardness and the humour though, and I instinctively knew that nothing would happen in the book to make me feel tense or on edge or at all concerned for any of the characters. Ordinarily I would say that’s not necessarily a good thing in a book, but on this occasion it did give me a very positive reading experience.
The story is told from Johanna/Dolly’s perspective, but it’s her brother Krissi who was my favourite character. I really liked seeing their relationship, and his inclusion in the narrative was an aspect I missed when Dolly moved away from home. However I have since discovered that How to Build a Girl is the first part in a planned trilogy, although I don’t know if the next books will follow the same characters or not. While I’m not sure I’d continue reading for the sake of Johanna alone, purely because I feel like I already know all there is to know about her character, I would be intrigued to carry on with the trilogy if I knew that Krissi was going to feature in the sequels. If the story focused solely on Johanna I wouldn’t be so keen, but I’d like to see how their relationship develops as they get older. However I do also hope that Caitlin Moran branches out a bit more in her fiction in the future, as she really is very funny and I’d like to see how she tackles a different, non-autobiographical kind of story.
See previous Book Review featuring Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.