A fun fact to start this post off with: I was going to call this a ‘review’, and then realised it was less of a review and more of a gush. A “holy fuck this book has explained what it’s like to be a teenage girl so well how did it do that” induced gush. So prepare yourselves.
But Johanna/Dolly thinks that writing should be explaining why you love a thing. And I loved this thing. So there you go.
Over the three days it took me to read this book, I couldn’t put it down for lots of reasons. One was a sort of giggly 14-year-old girl reason, as the book is so filthy and Johanna Morrigan is so sex-obsessed that I found myself compelled to keep reading in a similar way to when you first discover sex scenes exist. A “I don’t know whether I should be reading about a young teenage girl having a wank next to her brother in bed, but it’s just there – what else am I supposed to do?” reason.
Another was because I ended up living my life vicariously through Dolly Wilde’s lifestyle for a little while in the middle. The top hat, the gigs, the gin and obviously the sleeping in John Kite’s bath. Of course, there was also the morbid fascination reason, in which I felt physically pained but also so intrigued every time something cringe-worthy happened.
In amongst all these reasons, I inevitably ended up emotionally attached to Johanna as a character, which is always a terrible thing to do. Especially when a book has the ability to hit you really fucking hard towards the end – if you’re planning on reading this book, I’d recommend a healthy sense of emotional detachment or loads of tissues.
I say “inevitably” because I always end up attached to female protagonists that actually feel like a real-life girl. There aren’t many books that manage to capture the voice and feelings of a proper 14-year-old girl, so I end up clinging with both hands to the ones that do it successfully.
Because – unlike so many other YA books – Johanna Morrigan isn’t boy obsessed, she just wants to have sex. She doesn’t become a music journalist because she’s following her dreams, she’s just painfully aware of her family’s financial situation and is shit-scared of her parents finding out she messed up their benefit entitlement. There’s none of this crap about her “being herself and that’s why everyone loves her” – she reinvents herself, kills off Johanna Morrigan and becomes Dolly Wilde, because that will make people like her. That will get her some friends, some money, and a shag.
At the beginning of my teenage years I killed myself off and reinvented myself a number of times. I was weird without having to try when actually I was trying really hard, I was thoughtful with my head always in a pretentious book that I never really understood but pretended I did, I was into obscure music that most people had probably never heard of when all I wanted to do was put One Direction on. I was into One Direction, but only ironically.
Like Johanna, I tried to be a cynic, before realising it’s actually a lot more fun to be a screaming, fainting, hand-flapping, heart-palpitating fan. I have killed myself time and time again, and like Johanna come to the realisation that I don’t want to keep projecting an image of myself, I just want to be myself (only not in the inspirational Disney channel way, just in a I can’t be bothered to keep playing a character way).
For me this book is every a young adult novel should be. It’s hilariously funny, heartbreakingly sad, open, honest, intelligent and retrospective. It made me cry with laughter and sadness, want to throw it across the room due to secondhand embarrassment, and wish I had a similar life to the one Johanna leads at the same time as being grateful I don’t.
Johanna revels in her strengths and can take the piss out of her own failings – and despite being one of the only female characters in a book full of loud men that love the sound of their own voices – she staggers blindly from scenario to scenario in her Docs, refusing to shrink in size and take her place, quietly, at the back, showing exactly what it’s like to be a working class girl trying to take up the space of a middle class man.