Meet Johanna Morrigan: 14 and English, with her family dependent on the benefits. Johanna is just trying to find herself. Who is she? Goth? Poet? Everyday teenager growing up in the 1990s? Aware that she is an overweight, loser bookworm from an uncultured, working-class town, Johanna is ready to change all that. How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran is about Johanna’s transition from friend-less virgin to sex goddess and ultimate rock and roll critic.
Home life is rough. Her father is a schmuck. Injured from a fall through a roof, he is addicted to pain medication and depends on the government for benefits. Now he spends his days drinking and telling his family that he’s going to release a song that he wrote ages ago and then they’ll be rich. He just needs to find someone in the record industry who can do that for him. Her own mother is lost, overcome with post-natal depression to the point that she doesn’t take care of her younger children, Johanna must fill that role. Johanna just wants to be loved, or at the very least, noticed.
What I enjoyed right away about Johanna’s story is her love of books and how they influenced her life. Anytime she mentions one, she also referenced the title, author, publisher and date published. She is like many poor kids, entertained by the free materials provided by the local library: books, magazines, music. Johanna is trying to find out where she belongs and how to escape from her dying industrial town.
In order to escape, she has created a new persona, Dolly Wilde. Dolly is the epitome of what Johanna wants to be. With her black clothing, boots and eyeliner sprawled so thickly like war paint, she is able to dissolve into the character she created. At 16, Dolly leaves school to start writing for a music magazine, reviewing shows and critiquing bands. But Dolly is making stupid decisions. At 16, she should be finishing school, not drinking all night, doing speed in a men’s restroom, and engaging in crazy sex adventures. Is this who Johanna want to be? I want to tell Johanna that under her Dolly disguise, she’s still the same girl that no one respects and being a slut doesn’t make others admire you or think you’re legendary. It just makes for great gossip at your expense.
Overall, I enjoyed the story of Johanna’s metamorphosis from child to young adult. It was a roller coaster of emotions and embarrassing mistakes, that is just part of the process of growing into an adult. It’s about learning who are your friends are and does your family really love you, and all the self-doubts that any normal hormone-driven teenager has ever thought.
About six months ago, I noticed this book in the New Fiction section at my local bookstore, particularly because the title was the same font as my copy of The Bell Jar. I was sure that it was purposely in that font to attract fans of the Sylvia Plath novel, like myself. A few weeks ago I came across the book at my local library. The inside cover contained a summary of the story, “Imagine The Bell Jar –written by Rizzo from Grease.” I totally knew it. Did it live up to my expectations? It most certainly did.
Cost: $0.00 from my local library
Drink of Choice: a mug of coffee with a mountain of whipped cream