Published by Harper
Publication date: July 3, 2018
Genres: Coming-of-age, Fiction, New Adult, Social Issues
When we left Johanna Morrigan (aka Dolly Wilde) at the end of How to Build a Girl (which I loved) she had come into her own at a music magazine, dropping snarky, rude reviews to focus on music and artists she loved. Now she’s broken free of her hilarious but toxic family and is, at eighteen, living on her own in London. Which is where author Caitlin Moran begins in her sequel, How to Be Famous.
Johanna is loving her life and her work, except she’s starting to notice she’s the only female in a rabidly testosterone-laden office
I don’t know if I should work here anymore. I feel…lonely. I feel like all those pictures of the heads of state of the world, where it’s eighty-nine men in suits, and the Queen, being a woman, on her own.
She’s also still in love with John Kite, a musician who has crossed over into the mainstream, i.e. his music is now loved by teenage girls so he’s considered ‘pop’—a badge of shame not honor. Something else that irks Johanna, but not as much as the fact that her love is unrequited. Oh, they’re dear friends, but John says she’s too young for him.
Loving John is just one of the stories that flow through How to Be Famous. Johanna leaves the magazine and lands a better job at a better magazine writing her own column, while her friend Zee starts a record label with his first group being one of outspoken, wild women. Their lead singer, Suzanne is a fabulously hardcore, take-no-prisoners feminist who says exactly what’s on her mind. From the moment she introduces their band:
“We’re The Branks, and we have three cool songs, two great ones, and three flaming shits. The trick is—can you tell which is which? I can’t.”
she makes for some of the best dialogue in the novel. Johanna, on the other hand, stumbles on her path. She makes a mistake sleeping with a well-known performer and it becomes public. Very public in a way that shames her, causing her to lose the footing she’s fought so hard to attain.
I love Moran’s stream-of-consciousness, electric writing style, but have to admit: How to Be Famous did not hold my attention the way How to Build a Girl did. Something about older Johanna, even as she battles the very real issues young women face everywhere in the workplace, left me able to set the book down for two weeks before picking it up to finish it. The urgency was not there. When I did start it up again, I loved what I read, but the fact that I could put it down at all meant something. Not much so don’t give up if the story wobbles.
Uneven pacing aside, How to Be Famous is filled with life, fun, and so much hard-won truth, it vibrates. The characters are people you want to know, to hang out with, and their stories are recognizable in the best and worst ways. Johanna is endearing with her blend of head and heart—capable of knowing so much but still able to feel deeply.
Young women do know who they are—OF COURSE THEY DO!—it’s just they’re told they’re not allowed to be it so often, and told to suppress their feelings so continually, that they gradually lose their entire instinct for happiness and self-realization, and turn into those panicking creatures you meet at parties who dance madly when “I Am What I Am” comes on the stereo, then spend the rest of the night crying.
And what else can you do reading this, but sigh and wipe your eyes, because maybe you were that girl, but at the time you didn’t know any better. You weren’t taught any differently. Well, Moran is here to teach and How to Be Famous is the second class in her series (yes, there is another book to come!). Using Johanna as her searching, wise, profane mouthpiece she writes prose that is rambunctious and exuberant. A necessary, but sometimes painful punch of Pulp Fiction adrenaline stabbed right into the heart. And like that fictitious antidote it will rouse you, bring you back to life, make you angry in all the ways you should be angry, but also leave you delightedly entertained and wanting more.