Sunday, August 10, 2014

How to Build a Girl Week THE END: “I don’t think I was here at all.”

I’ve been concerned about Johanna all along, of course, but I wasn’t truly worried until she started doing Kenny’s bad speed (“even Shane McGowan from the Pogues won’t take it”—yikes) in a bathroom stall. It seemed to Johanna to be the only remedy for her unhappiness after an offended bass player threw his drink on her. It seemed to me to be another suppression of her Self.

And she’s been doing a lot of suppressing throughout this book. Really, whenever she’s not with John Kite or her family, she’s not so much building a certain kind of girl as pretending to be that girl already, at the expense of actually getting to know herself. This is what I meant when I said (somewhere . . . in someone’s comment section?) that faking it until you make it can be a dangerous game if you play it too enthusiastically.

When I look back through Johanna’s sexual adventures, beginning with The Kisser, she almost seems to disappear from the book in those places. There’s no room for her there.
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. I’m learning so many new things about me, every day. Perhaps this is the day I find I am secretly a masochist. (p. 259)

As it turns out

And that’s a common theme in Johanna’s coming-of-age story. Almost nothing she has done to date has been for herself, because it was the best thing for her. We can argue that she wanted to have lots of sex and decided she would do that, but in actual practice . . . what is she getting out of any of this?
“All my sex is done by me, and is silent.” (p. 262)
Those are not the words of a sexually empowered woman.

She is so out of touch with herself and so lacking in agency that she becomes one of those girls who drunkenly kisses another girl solely for the benefit of a male onlooker. And she nearly becomes one of those girls who engages in a threesome to gain said male’s approval (“I order myself to be OK with this”).

And the compromises extend to other areas of her life, too. Did you guys know that Johanna once had secret dreams of being an academic? No, and I’ll venture no one in her life did either, because this is the first time she’s lowered her façade enough even to think about an alternate path to the one she’s heading down full tilt:
In another world—where I had not run away from school to earn money—I would have gone there, I think. My mock-exam results were high enough, and I would have left Wolverhampton and entered that intellectual Gormenghast, where there are no boys standing on street corners shouting at you, no men threating to put an ax in your dog’s head. (p. 268)
Fortunately, the night of the almost-threesome and melancholy thoughts on the Path Not Taken was also the night when Johanna found her agency.
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! (p. 279)
Oh THERE you are, Johanna.

And while that’s not the end of Johanna’s pain, it is the beginning of true self-discovery, helped along by a supportive family (thank you, Caitlin, for that companionable conversation between Johanna and her mum) and a gentle musician in a fur cape who has some growing up of his own to do.

This has been a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. YOU CAN HAVE THIS BOOK. Preorder it from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller. Imma go read it again now.


  1. When I was 18 I got angry at one of my friends at her birthday party because she was kissing her housemate for a group of boys. It infuriated me that on her birthday, the day everyone is supposed to lavish her with attention and love, she felt like she had to do that to keep their attention. I was probably a little louder than I should have been, but amazingly we remained friends AND she stopped speaking to those assholes (eventually).

    A really fantastic sum up this week Meg.

  2. I think one of the things Moran did best in this book was hit on the unhealthy relationship many young women have with sex and attention. And I love that she did it without pointing and saying that having sex is bad, but rather understanding yourself is good.

  3. I too loved the conversation between Johanna and her mom - it really filled me with all the warm fuzzies.

    I agree that Johanna is still coming into her own - who isn't at 17? But I left the book feeling like she was getting a handle on growing in a healthy way and that everything was going to be alright. It was pretty uplifting, actually.

  4. I think there is so much good about this book, but I wish Moran hadn't rushed the ending. I would have liked a bit more time with Johanna.

  5. I'm trying to see if there's a way to like a comment. Because I want to like this one.

  6. "faking it until you make it can be a
    dangerous game if you play it too enthusiastically." This is SUCH a good point. Johanna seems only to be able to do things enthusiastically so this was a dangerous area for her. I'm glad she finally realized she can be herself and NOT just exist to please other people

  7. She really did do a lot of suppressing in this book... and maybe that's why I started to enjoy it less as the book went on. Johanna started out so unique and funny and HER, and we saw less and less of that girl as she grew older.

  8. I was worrying about Johanna through the last section, but by the end it feels like she's gonna be okay, that she's made some silly mistakes but learned from them and won't be ultimately damaged. I was pleased when she walked out on Tony Rich - that she decided that what she wanted was just as important as what he wanted, a thing that she hadn't considered in her sexual escapades up to this point.

  9. Emily@AstheCrowe FliesAugust 11, 2014 at 10:56 AM

    So it's true: learning to love yourself IS the greatest love of all. ;)

    And yes, I'm glad we were rewarded this week with seeing the start of Johanna's true self-discovery.

  10. I agree. It didn't really feel rushed as I was reading, but now that I think about it, there was an awful lot of character growth in the last ten pages in proportion to the whole rest of the novel.

  11. Ooh, this is an A++ comment.

  12. Johanna's thoughts about being an academic made me simultaneously so happy and so sad. I hope future!Johanna does eventually go back to school and learn how to pronounce all the confusing words. Because really, that's what school is for -- keeping you from saying PARA-DIG-UM in front of cool bands you are trying to impress.

  13. Robin Williamsssss :'(

    Anyway... Twas in my comments that you said the thing about the stuff about the faking it til you make it, and I guess you were right in this case- faking it til you make it made Johanna act in ways she didn't really want to, and lose her path in, well, everything. (Although I still stand by it as a way of coping, sometimes. But just not for too long.)

    BASICALLY, this sum up is the best and your gifs are awesome and now I want to watch Lord of the Rings again. Obviously.

  14. I was very glad she finally found some agency! That was good. I was kind of sad when we learned that she had other ambitions she'd abandoned. I know she made a decent go of being a music critic but I can't help feeling she might have been better off taking a different route. Probably one involving finishing high school.