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Bawdy, excessive and slightly unbelievable are my first impressions of Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl.

Set mostly in Wolverhampton, England, Joanna Morrigan is a 14-year-old girl going on 35 who is certain she has outgrown the life into which she’s been born. Joanna is intelligent, funny, overweight and practically exudes anguish since she is still a virgin; in fact, she’s never been kissed. There’s also an awkward, embarrassing moment when she’s on TV. So, she does what most teenagers attempt: she reinvents herself. This involves a new name and a career; that’s right, a career. As a music critic.

At first, Joanna, now known as Dolly Wilde, manages to remain true to herself while projecting a much more confident demeanor. However, the need to fit in eventually overwhelms her and her journey of self-discovery leads to predictable consequences – especially since it involves sex, drugs and rock and roll.

The Morrigan family relies on government assistance to get by. When Joanna innocently mentions this to a neighbor she worries this could mean an end to their life on the dole. This is, in large part, the reason she decides to pursue a career, so she can help financially. This, of course, means quitting school.

Moran’s writing is vivid, albeit at times also lurid. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but not enough to compensate for the exasperation Joanna/Dolly causes.

My initial reaction to the novel doesn’t change much by its end.

How to Build a Girl
Three Bookmarks
HarperCollins, 2014
341 pages

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