Young and Stupid in a Top Hat

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

Reading Challenge: The first book you see in a bookstore

(Technically, this was the first book I saw in a bookstore window. Lucky me, it turned out to be on sale for $4.99.)

One of the signs of growing older, I’m pretty sure, happens as you read a book with a teen protagonist and start sympathizing with the parents. Yes, your hero/heroine is growing up and learning and loving and maybe saving the world, depending on genre, but he/she/they also sounds like a royal pain in the ass to live with. This is a thought that occurred to me as I read How to Build a Girl, which is weird because I actually did not sympathize with Johanna’s parents. I really didn’t like Johanna’s parents. They fell into recognizable categories of stressed-and-practical-and-putting-the-family-first parent (here, Mom. This parent is almost always the mother) and larger-than-life-but-kind-of-pathetic-if-you-think-about-it-Big-Dreamer parent (Dad. 90% of these fictional parents are Dad. If they are Mom, Mom is usually dead or abandoned the family because of how selfish her larger-than-life-ness was). But although I couldn’t stand these particular parents, and although my memories of my adolescence are still clear and I’m still capable of teenage brattiness in my thirties, I just have a lot more trouble settling into the teenager’s world view these days.

The replacement parent, in this book, was Johanna’s older brother Krissi. Krissi, Johanna’s wise, life-embracing, gay older brother, was the only character in this book I actually liked, although it was really unclear what he was doing when he wasn’t “onscreen” with Johanna. Growing plants in his room, apparently, but after a while I couldn’t help feeling as if he maybe never went outside, because he was in his room whenever Johanna needed him.

This impression is probably because this book is from Johanna’s perspective, and it is all about Johanna. She is a teenager from a working-class family that survives off of benefits and she has all the standard equipment of a teenage protagonist: a big imagination, a startling number of misconceptions, an out-of-control libido, and a self-image problem. She’s not a skinny girl, which is refreshing (and makes the book’s cover irritating for multiple reasons: the skinny legs image, and the quote from White Feminist Icon Lena Dunham), and based on what I’ve read about Caitlin Moran, Johanna’s got a heavy dose of the autobiographical to her. Johanna has a lot of what we need in a teenage heroine: she isn’t a blank slate, or perfect, or a fully reluctant protagonist, but has ambitions and dreams and makes mistakes and wants to have sex. She learns a big and important lesson, which is that cynicism is a trap, you shouldn’t be ashamed of loving things, and people can’t tell you’re a good person on the inside if you constantly do shitty things. This is all fine. I just didn’t like her, or this book, very much.

I can’t tell you why, exactly. It could possibly be that stories about people constantly screwing up make me incredibly tense. It could be that I was desperate, desperate for her to make a single female friend (the only peers she meets are “the other girl” and her trend-following cousin, who is depicted with massive amounts of scorn). It could be that even for a teenager she seemed appallingly stupid at some points. It definitely was not because she made two wildly inaccurate references to movies I like (Leia doesn’t kiss Han before swinging out over a chasm, she kisses Luke then and Han corners her while making repairs on the ship, and Marion wasn’t in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, you’re thinking of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Obviously this isn’t worth tossing the book for, but it did make me wonder how many music references were similarly wrong and I just didn’t know).

I did approve of the top hat, though. If you’re going to be young and make huge amounts of mistakes, might as well do it in a top hat.

Listen, bottom line: it’s not a bad book. It doesn’t have a bad message, and it’s got something we NEED more of, which is a flawed and selfish heroine with ambitions. You might like it. I just didn’t.

But not because of this:


Seriously, this is iconic, and it’s distracting me. Was it wrong on purpose? If so, why? If not, who was editing this book, a mole person?

Suggested pairing: Guinness, for reasons which will become obvious if you read the book.





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