How to Build a Girl



april-chat So Caitlin Moran’s (in)famous How to Build a Girl is up for the breakdown today and it’s no big secret that I loved every inch of this book. I thought it was funny, relevant, and something important that we haven’t seen since Judy Blume. Let’s see what my fellow salonnière’s think about it.
shannon-chat One thing I’m curious about is whether or not this actually caught on in YA circles, even among adults that regularly read YA. I feel like most of the people I’ve seen pick it up don’t usually read young adult, which had me wondering. I know there was a bit of a backlash over statements Moran made regarding the lack of sexiness in the genre, do you think that had something to do with it? Or was it actually widely read?
catherine-chat2 I didn’t know it was pitched as YA, and I have to say I’m not sure I’d want my teenage nieces to read it. Even as an adult Johanna’s journey was rough, really rough. And the language was beyond filthy- as was Johanna’s life. I got why Moran wrote it that way and I loved the book but I’m not sure I thought it was YA.

I’m not sure that it was actually marketed as YA, at the same time I think that it could be a really great read for teenagers, especially teenage girls. I just think that apart from the difficult life journey and the absolutely filthy language there is so much that a teenage girl could take away from this. I think this could be a great mother/daughter book club pick, maybe awkward in places but definitely plenty of topics ripe for discussion.
shannon-chat With all the humor thrown into the novel, it’s easy to overlook how smart Moran is in addressing so many different issues—female sexuality, welfare, postpartum depression. And I’m glad for that. Even though I found much of it really funny, after the first chapter I was really worried anything intelligent would be completely buried under humor. Thankfully, Moran does have moments of tenderness. It’s nearly impossible to read without marking quotes when so many pointed lines stand out.

I totally have half of the book highlighted.

I found Johanna’s thoughts regarding her family’s poverty especially eye-opening and so moving. She carried an enormous amount of anxiety for her family because of that. Also, she has a terrifying amount of freedom for someone her age. I’m all for free-range kids, and it’s great that she was able to make money to relieve some of her family’s financial burdens but I didn’t feel like anyone in Johanna’s life was keeping up with where she was or what she was doing at any given time.

I agree and disagree with this statement. I think that Johanna’s parents cared for her, I really do—at the same time I think that they were incapable to parent her in any other way. Mom was suffering from post-partum depression pretty badly throughout the early stages of the novel and I think that Johanna’s father was just a man-child. They both loved their daughter, but didn’t necessarily have the resources (emotionally and mentally) to parent her “properly”.

But can we talk about the family’s benefits/welfare? Was the family ‘gaming’ the system?

Were they being absolutely truthful about every part of their lives? Probably not. But poverty is poverty and they weren’t making that up. They weren’t rolling in hidden piles of cash every night while raking in big bucks from the government. I think the better question would be how much huge corporations are gaming the system, but you know…bootstraps and all that. Sorry, I’ll be over here rambling to myself in the corner.

I’m picking up what you’re laying down. Let’s duke that out in the comment section, mostly because I want to move on to the next point. Also regarding money, did anyone have any thoughts on the juxtaposition that Moran created between Johanna’s world of scrounging barely above the poverty line and the upper-middle class culture that she’s presented with while visiting Tony Rich’s parents?

I thought this was just another really pointed layer Moran built into the book. I helped to highlight exactly where Johanna was coming from and how she saw the world. I also thought was also a great way to build to her breaking point.

I was objectifying you,” I continue, trying to suppress the sobs that will ruin this soliloquy of outrage. “I have a score card for shagging nobs. I’m on a fucking bonus run for banging you. I’m getting high fives down the Working Men’s Club. We make our own amusements on the council estates. I’m not your ‘bit of rough.’ You’re my bit of posh.

april-chat That breaking point was rough—but I loved it. It was a great way to show that despite Johanna being the great ‘lady sex adventurer’—she still was a teenage girl and casual sex is great as long as you’re prepared for it (which, emotionally, with many of her partners, Johanna did seem to be prepared for it), but as a teenage girl you’ve got to fall ‘in love’ sometime.
monika-chat Johanna was employed as a critic, but did any of you feel like she crossed a line? Was she being mean just to be mean? Was she unintentionally using her persona to process her own feelings about her personal situations? Do you think she realized how vicious she was being all along, or not until closer to her revelation about it?
catherine-chat2 Good question! I recognized Johanna in her scathing reviews because to me, they were a cry to be liked. She wasn’t getting a response with her heartfelt writing but when she got mean she was the immediately popular. She needed to try out that persona but I’m so glad she found her place. Her epiphany about writing reviews is tacked up on my bulletin board: Explaining why you love something is one of the most important jobs on earth.
april-chat Interesting, I hadn’t thought about it as a cry to be liked but I think that’s exactly what those mean reviews were – she had tried to be awkward, natural Johanna – but that wasn’t working so great for her. I also don’t necessarily realized how vicious she was being. I thought Moran portrayed the thoughtlessness of teenagers here really excellently, it wasn’t until she had a drink thrown in her face that she realized those reviews meant something to someone other than herself.

Because I am still learning to walk and talk, and it is a million times easier to be cynical and wield a sword, than it is to be open-hearted and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish. Because I still don’t know what I think or feel, and I’m throwing up grenades and filling the air with smoke while I desperately, desperately try to get off the ground: to get elevation. Because I haven’t yet learned the simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.

shannon-chat I love that Moran included this and did it in a way that didn’t make the situation sunshine and daisies, but just recognized the fact that sometimes it can be so much easier to snark than be nice.

I love how there are two distinct images in that passage: adulthood (cynicism, swords, grenades) and childhood (open-heartedness, balloons, birthday cake). This really speaks to Johanna having one foot in both of those worlds: she’s still a child, yet she’s having to be an adult. These two worlds are in constant conflict throughout the novel. Creating a new persona was one way she could deal with having to function in a tough adult world; but to me, the “pretending” that came along with it felt like a (sad) nod to the childhood Johanna was losing far too soon.
catherine-chat2 That passage is just one of the many amazing thoughts Moran poured out in Girl. I quoted more text  from that book than almost any other I’ve reviewed. She just put the process of growing up and finding yourself so brilliantly. Even in middle age, I found her journey applicable to my own life- we all have to remake ourselves again and again. Another one I loved that was similar was:

There is no academy where you can learn to be yourself; there is no line manager slowly urging you toward the correct answer. You are midwife to yourself, and will give birth to yourself, over and over, in dark rooms, alone.

So readers, Moran plays with so many themes and ideas in this novel. We have everything ranging from being a teenage girl, with all the issues including sexuality, masturbation, virginity, and self esteem to welfare issues and whether the family was deserving or perhaps gaming the system. What did you get out of this book? Tell us the topics that inspired or enraged you the most!