Being a teenage girl can really suck, and doesn’t Johanna Morrigan know it. In the opening of British columnist Caitlin Moran’s debut novel How to Build a Girl, it is 1990 and Johanna Morrigan is 14-years-old and living in a council estate (what Americans might call public housing) in Wolverhampton, England. Her family includes her would-be rock star dad who’s on disability, a mother who is suffering from post-partum depression after giving birth to twins, and her brothers, older brother Krissi and younger brother Lupin. The Morrigans struggle to survive on benefits and face a bleak future in an economically depressed England.
And if these issues aren’t enough, young Johanna has to also deal with being a fat, horny and insecure teenager with few friends and zilch romantic possibilities. A chance interview on a TV show causes Johanna to conduct herself in a rather embarrassing manner, and she is humiliated and mortified. Johanna is now desperate to change her life, but how?
By giving herself a make-over and renaming herself Dolly Wilde after Oscar Wilde’s lesbian niece, of course! She doffs a top hat, heavy eyeliner and cultivates an edgy and provocative alter ego. She starts taking out CDs from the local library, reads the best in rock and roll journalism, and fully immerses herself in a new-found musical education. Knowing she needs to make some money to help her struggling family, Johanna/Dolly somehow talks herself into writing record reviews for the rock magazine Disc & Music Echo despite having limited writing experience. However, what she lacks experience she makes up in talent and ambition.
Johanna/Dolly’s magazine colleagues sometimes treat her as an irritating kid sister, but she soon proves herself to be quite formidable as a music journalist. She attends rock concerts, gigs and parties, and ingratiates herself to musicians hoping to get the big scoop and write attention-getting features. Her record reviews are filled with witty observations and cutting opinions. Throughout How to Build a Girl Johanna/Dolly names all the top musicians of the 1990s—U2, Nirvana, Blur, Teenage Fan Club, the Stone Roses, Lush, Happy Mondays, Blur and James.
Soon Johanna/Dolly is fully immersed in the world of rock and roll. She hastily drops out of high school so she can fully focus on her budding journalistic career. Professionally, Johanna/Dolly impresses her colleagues and gets more assignments. Personally, Johanna/Dolly goes a bit crazy. She starts smoking, drinking and experimenting with drugs. She also cozies up a bit too much to some of her colleagues and the musicians she interviews in a desperate attempt to lose her virginity. Finally, Johanna/Dolly’s “V-Card” is punched and she is utterly elated. Somebody wants to have sex with her!
And soon lots of “somebodies” want to have sex with Johanna/Dolly, and she’s all-to-willing to comply. It seems she just recently had her first kiss, and now she’s compiling quite a huge list of lovers.
It is t this point of How to Build a Girl, Moran could have become a moralizing shrew and had Johanna/Dolly suffer some horrible tragedy for conducting herself like the town trollop. She could have had Johanna/Dolly suffer a brutal rape, get a rather annoying STD (or even worse, AIDS) or gotten knocked up. To my delight, Moran eschews these literary clichés, and allows Johanna/Dolly to embrace her sexuality, make mistakes that nobody would judge if she were a guy, and keeps on going while trying to mature in a world that often looks down on young women who don’t quite live up to middle class respectability.
But you know what? To hell with middle class respectability! The more I read about Johanna/Dolly’s adventures and journey to adulthood the more I liked her. Sure, she has her obnoxious moments—what teen girl doesn’t? But I cheered her on as she immersed herself into the intoxicating world of rock and roll, got her writing gig with Disc & Music Echo, met up with her favorite musicians, didn’t shy from expressing her musical opinions, admitted to being as horny as any boy, and somehow stayed devoted to her messed up family. I also felt deep compassion for her when she admitted to moments of crushing low self-esteem, family strife, embarrassing encounters of all kinds, and her struggles to connect with others.
How to Build a Girl’s Johanna Morrigan/Dolly Wilde is a vividly drawn character, both over-the-top bon vivant and down-to-earth geek. I’ve long admired Caitlin Moran as a columnist, and now I admire her as a novelist. How to Build a Girl is a literary rock star!