Published by Harper on September 23, 2014
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.
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What do you do in your teenage years when you realise what your parents taught you wasn't enough? You must go out and find books and poetry and pop songs and bad heroes - and build yourself.
It's 1990. Johanna Morrigan, 14, has shamed herself so badly on local TV that she decides that there's no point in being Johanna anymore and reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde - fast-talking, hard-drinking Gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer! She will save her poverty stricken Bohemian family by becoming a writer - like Jo in Little Women, or the Brontes - but without the dying young bit.
By 16, she's smoking cigarettes, getting drunk and working for a music paper. She's writing pornographic letters to rock-stars, having all the kinds of sex with all the kinds of men, and eviscerating bands in reviews of 600 words or less.
But what happens when Johanna realises she's built Dolly with a fatal flaw? Is a box full of records, a wall full of posters and a head full of paperbacks, enough to build a girl after all?
Imagine The Bell Jar written by Rizzo from Grease, with a soundtrack by My Bloody Valentine and Happy Mondays. As beautiful as it is funny, How To Build a Girl is a brilliant coming-of-age novel in DMs and ripped tights, that captures perfectly the terror and joy of trying to discover exactly who it is you are going to be.
After shaming herself on local television, fourteen-year-old Johanna Morrigan decides to reinvent herself. It’s 1990, prime time for sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Johanna transforms into Dolly Wilde and lands a job writing reviews for a music paper by the time she’s sixteen, determined to save her family from poverty. Eventually her new lifestyle catches up with her and she is forced to confront Dolly’s tragic flaw.
Johanna is incredibly intelligent. In a strange sort of way, she reminds me of an edgy Flavia de Luce. I think it’s the way her mind works. She’s discerning and sees things as they really are… yet, she can’t deny her teenage desires to be desired, to be beautiful, to be cool. She also can’t avoid the inevitability of making stupid choices and naive assumptions, though she recognizes the wrongness of her situation and the fact that she’s still a child.
This book is a wild and crazy ride, but it’s so much deeper than that. Johanna carries the burden and anxiety of her family’s poverty. We are privvy to her thought process as she works through her deepest inner conflicts. Her revelations are profound, sometimes sad, always enlightening.
There are sticky notes all throughout my copy of the book. I can see why some of my fellow bloggers broke this up in sections and were still able to write profusely about each one. Book groups will love How to Build a Girl; it’s guaranteed to inspire and encourage endless discussion. This is an unforgettable coming of age story with a nice, satisfying ending.