Welcome to the final week of the readalong for Caitlin Moran's first fiction novel How TO Build A Girl. I'm a little sad to be writing out the following for the last time (unless there's a wrap up post next week?) because I've really enjoyed reading this book with everyone. All the different lifestyles and perspectives we each have have made this a really illuminating read. So for the final time, THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU dearest Emily for hosting, Harper Collins for providing and Caitlin Moran for writing.
SPOILERS obviously, but if you've made it this far through the posts I'm not sure there's a whole lot to spoil!
Perhaps the best thing about this novel is that it is the perfect encapsulation of a moment in a teenage girl's life. Not every girl's life will take this particular path but the building blocks that make up this story? The experimentation, the reinvention, the feelings of hopelessness and confusion, the hormones, the misunderstandings, the outside influences - EVERY girl, all across the globe experiences those things as they try and make it through high school and adolescence alive. It's a difficult time for anyone, but girls have this added layer of expectation that you don't see with boys. An expectation to be an expert in relationships but also to go straight from daddy to husband without giving away the milk for free (god how I hate that saying). An expectation to be more together and adult. You read countless stories of boys assaulting girls or some other stupid stunt and giving the excuse that they were "young, drunk, stupid" but you don't see that same level of sympathy with girls. Instead they were asking for it or they should have known better. It's enough to make your head spin.
Yes Johanna makes mistakes. Yes she takes risks. Yes she's far from being a responsible adult. But she's learning. And the best way to learn is through trying, and you really can't fault her for that. She tries promiscuity and drinking and self-harm and being a mean reviewer and wearing top hats everywhere and some of it sticks and some of it she learns from and moves forward (Self-harm - the world will come at you with knives anyway). It's how we grow up, it'd be nice to think we can all make the right choices all the time but it simply isn't feasible. Even if it was, the right choice for one person is the wrong one for the next.
The thought I can't have is "I don't want to do this" - because how do I know if I don't want to do this? I'm still terra-forming me.That whole final section is full of gold and for nothing else this is why this book is important. Because when I see the comments people make on facebook or under articles it seems like people forget what it is to be a teenager, even when those years are still fairly clear in their rear-view mirror. It doesn't matter how perfect our parents are, how fortunate we are or how excellent a group of friends and teachers we had - everyone goes through this cycle of change. It's how we get to know ourselves. We change our hair style or colour, we experiment with styles of clothes and types of music, hell maybe we experiment with other people. It's different for everyone of course, but the observations in this final section really hit home for me.
So what do you do when you build yourself - only to realise you built yourself with the wrong things? You rip it up and start again. That is the work of your teenage years - to build up and tear down and build up again, over and over, endlessly, like speeded-up film of cities during boom times and wars. To be fearless, and endless, in your reinventions - to keep twisting on nineteen, going bust, and dealing in again, and again. Invent, invent, invent.I remember thinking a friend of mine was a complete hypocrite because in 9th grade he was only interested in Metallica. Metallica was the band, he worshipped and adored them and couldn't see the value in any other type of music. He actively criticised most other genres and railed about how he'd always be a Metallica fan. Then in grade 11 he made a switch to electronic music and completely cut ties with his former obsession. It was only a couple of years later that it clicked that Metallica had been his older brother's favourite band, and like my sisters both seemed to adore the same things as me until they got a stronger footing and took their own paths, he had simply piggybacked on his brother's interests before progressing on his own.
What I'm saying basically, is that while people aren't wrong to feel worried for Johanna and her choices, there's absolutely nothing wrong with what she's doing. Sometimes the experiments we make as teens have serious consequences but that still doesn't make the original experiment wrong. Perhaps she was having sex for the wrong reasons* and she was definitely crazy to spend more than 5 minutes with the big-mouthed dickhead Rich but once she got to a certain point she stopped it. She wasn't always comfortable with their relationship (if you want to go so far as to call it that) but you can only pull a rubber band so far before breaking it. She got to a point, in this case the threesome with Emilia and Rich's continued lack of respect and she stopped it. Because while she's still terra-forming, she's formed enough to know that this definitely isn't what she wants.
"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 at 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"--
I feel excitingly...free. Things were going to happen to me last night that I did not like - and I stopped them. I have never prevented my own doom before! I have never stood in the path of certain unhappiness and told myself - lovingly, like a mother to myself - no! This unhappiness will not suit you! Turn around and go another way!Is Johanna about to stop having casual sex? No, because she doesn't want to stop. But is she going to be more active in putting her own wants forwards? In letting a man know what she is and isn't willing to do? ...Maybe. It might take a few more heartbreaks and moments of embarrassment before she's able to be completely forthright with men, but she's certainly on the right path. And even then there will be countless more moments of confusion and turmoil as she embarks on relationships or casual sex with guys, even if she is completely upfront with her desires. But each moment will help her to evolve and become a better, stronger and more complete person.
You are a midwife to yourself, and will give birth to yourself, over and over, in dark rooms, alone.I mentioned on Alley's post last week that I was hoping that Johanna wouldn't fall pregnant. Not because it's not a reasonable response to her activities (especially as most of us mentioned, there was no talk of protection being used) but because it would sour everything that came before it. It'd turn the whole thing into some kind of after school morality play, and we've been witness to plenty of those. Instead we get treated to a girl who makes mistakes and suffers some consequences but for the most past escapes it all unscathed, a woman fully grown. She's smarter about men, about her writing, about money, about her body and appearance. Although it seems she's not smarter about her brother, whether because she's wanting to protect him or she's actually that oblivious. Personally I think she's just oblivious, because they share so many intimate details of her sex life that I can't believe she wouldn't pull him into the cupboard to discuss why they're going to be visiting gay clubs. As smart and as grown up as she has become in a relatively short space of time, she still has a lot to learn. Especially when it comes to other people.
On a final note, John Kite is officially a Decent Dude. Huzzah!
Not only does he give wrap her up in a bear hug when she needs it the most and spend a wonderful day at the zoo helping her forget the nonsense that was Rich Hall but he's also incredibly level headed when she finally moves past her embarrassment and asks about what happened while she was in a gin haze that day.
"It's just the age thing right now babe. Too young...Not you, Dutch - me. I'm far too young for you. I'm hopeless," He sighsSo for now she has gained a good friend and surrogate older brother. And John Kite has Dutch and a fancy new fur
And since I've been rather serious this post, I thought I'd sum up with some of my other highlighted quotes (oh god, there were so many)
~Why can't I press a litmus paper to Tony's sweaty brow, when we're fucking, and see if it turns pink for love - or blue for casual fuck? ... Why has science not attended to this matter?
~As Rabindranath Tagore advised parents, "Don't limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time"
~I'm quite startled by how small Dadda sounds. Small, and oddly lonely. Like a busker who's been chucked out of a pub for annoying the other customers, and is now standing outside. I suddenly have a terrible pang of sympathy for him. He was so happy making these songs - but they come across so sad.
~Am I? Was I amazing? Is what I just did amazing? If I think about it, what happened here tonight was that Tony Rich had sex with someone pretending they were Tony Rich. I don't think I was here at all.
~I've read Rimbaud, yes, but I'm still not sure how to pronounce his name - surely it can't be Rambo? But if it is, I've got fifty Sylvestor Stallone jokes read to go.
~Rock 'n ' roll is a terrible babysitter, baby
~So this is the point of self-harm! I marvel. It is translation of emotion into action! It is simpler! It's admin! It's just paperwork!
~Every book, opera house, moon shot, and manifesto is here because someone, somewhere, lit up silent when someone else came into the room, and then quietly burned when they didn't notice them.
~You'll find the tiny, right piece of grit you can pearl around, until nature kicks in, and your shell will just quietly fill with magic, even while you're busy doing other things.
And so ends the readalong. Like I said above in the intro blurb I've found this readalong especially interesting because as a group we're all so completely different. Some of us are barely older than Johanna, some of us have kids, some of us have experienced the same depression and poverty as people in Johanna's life. But where ever we are currently in our life, we all seem to have taken away something from this book which is to Caitlin's credit as a writer. Overall I was really impressed with this novel. I do wish it had been a little less overtly autobiographical and the tense shifts were distracting at times, but for a first time novel I think it hit more high points than low. So thanks again for being such interesting, perceptive ladies - it's going to be sad to not have a collection of posts to read every Monday.
**I don't think she was, for the record. Or at least not completely. A large part of it was clearly just a healthy sexual curiosity.