Review of How To Be Famous by

Book cover for How To Be Famous

This is not a drill.

I repeat: NOT A DRILL.

Yes, Caitlin Moran has written a sequel to the sublime How to Build a Girl. I never expected this, never asked for this … and I definitely don’t deserve it, but young women do. This sequel is arguably better, brighter, more brilliant than the first book. I devoured it in a day, and I already want to go back and re-read it, underline it, find quotations, make my friends read it to hear their opinions. This is a book I want to share and evangelize and enjoy again and again, but it is uncompromising and unflinching in its feminism … yet it also contains so much joy.

Spoilers for the first book! Content warnings for this book: lots and lots of drug use, explicit sex (if you are sex-repulsed you are not going to like this), sexual harassment/misconduct, discussions of eating disorders/purging/fatphobia.

How to Be Famous picks up where the first book leaves off: 19-year-old Johanna Morrigan, writing under the pen name Dolly Wilde, reviews music shows and lives in London. She is, in her own words, a raunchy “Lady Sex Adventurer”—but really, of course, she is still young and learning her way through the sometimes terrifying and disappointingly misogynistic world of the London music scene. Johanna refuses to sleep with a comedian, then gives him a second chance—but when she snubs him yet again, he takes revenge. Soon Johanna finds herself in a situation too many prominent women face: being publicly shamed for her sexual behaviour (which is really no one else’s business).

Once again, I’m struck by how much I like Johanna as a character. She is a raw and honest narrator, telling the story with some distance from her younger self but still exposing us to her younger self’s earnestness. Once more she lives this split life: on one hand, she is Dolly Wilde, fearless music journalist and Lady Sex Adventurer; on the other hand, she is still Johanna Morrigan, nineteen-year-old girl trying to figure out what the hell this life is all about. This is particularly noticeable when she talks, at length, about her feelings for John Kite. As much as Johanna evinces this confident, sexually liberated exterior, deep down she is still inexperienced, still trying to figure out who she wants to be—and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Indeed, one of the most poignant moments in the book for me comes when Johanna finds herself in the position to take a friend’s virginity, to teach him and show him the ropes, and she discovers how enticing a prospect this is for her. Suddenly, the sex act is not about showing how good she is at pleasing a man; it’s this collaborative experience. Johanna is basically a microcosm for portraying the epochal shift that feminism underwent over the decades, from perceiving “liberation” as “we can or should have as much sex as we want, when we want” to “we can have as much sex when we want, with whom we want, entirely on our terms”. Moran recapitulates this much more resoundingly later in the book. In between then, of course, we have the juxtaposition of Johanna’s unsatisfactory experiences with Jerry Sharp.

Although set in the mid-nineties, this book will obviously resonate with the current #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Johanna discovers firsthand the inequity of being a woman who has casual sex. In addition to the professional fallout from refusing Tony (in the first book), there’s the way Jerry Sharp essentially goes out of his way to target her—something that sounds all too credible to me, unfortunately, just from what I read, and will no doubt feel even more familiar to some women readers. Moran masterfully manages the emotional upheaval that Johanna endures, the ups and downs culminating in a fantastic nadir, a flight, and then of course the redemptive realization that she would rather fight (but how?).

This is where How to Be Famous departs from some of the more gritty takes on rape culture that I’ve read over the years: it has a happy ending, and Johanna gets some measure of closure or retaliation. Despite dealing with a very serious subject, it nevertheless remains hopeful and buoyant and defiant in that way. And I want to be clear: I’m not saying that’s better than books that adhere to a less optimistic storyline. The whole point is that we deserve all sorts of narratives about this topic. We need narratives that portray the brutal, uncaring realities about rape culture. We also deserve narratives about how it is possible to fight and to win against men who abuse their privilege. Just as How to Build a Girl made me excited for teenage girls to read it because it talks so honestly about some of the feelings they might wrestle with, I’m excited that How to Be Famous exists for young women. It shows them that you can be strong and still be scared, and upset, and at a loss at times. You can fight back and still be terrified and unsure of yourself. Media often simplify narratives, raising up some people as paragons and casting down others as unworthy—and it is never that simple. It is always more complicated. Moran captures that in Johanna’s behaviour here.

This book feels a lot more focused, in terms of plot, than the first one, which is another reason I find it even better. That being said, don’t mistake this book for solely a novel about sexual misconduct. There’s so much more happening in here, so many fascinating feminist subplots. Let’s just briefly list them: Johanna and her dad, the way she’s acting as this proxy mother figure (and at odds with her own mother); the hilarious conversations between Johanna and her brother Krissi, which always warmed my heart; the ruminations, once again, on the effects of poverty on one’s psychology and actions—see the scene with Johanna and her brother Lupin; Suzanne and the record deal and the way Suzanne has a lot of ideas but is scared to commit them to a recording; and, of course, the quixotic love story between Johanna and John Kite. There is just so much happening in this book it actually beggars belief. I definitely need to re-read it at some point because there are so many rich little nuances I probably missed as I tore through it this once.

If you want something that is honest and uncompromising in its portrayal of women’s sexuality, yet also fun and optimistic and hopefully empowering (not really my lane here), How to Be Famous might be that. You don’t have to read the first book, but I would highly recommend it. This is not just a worthy sequel: it’s an exquisite pleasure, a story I never thought I’d get—and honestly one that I wasn’t really clamouring for, yet now I’m so happy to have it. Again, this book isn’t really for me per se … I’m so excited to share it with my female friends, to see what they recognize of their own experiences in this, to have fascinating conversations with them. But it definitely helped me, helped expand my empathy and my understanding, which is why I would recommend it to a general audience. Moran’s writing is humorous and humane, and I always want more of that in my life.

Engagement

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