It’s incredibly hard to review a memoir without reviewing the person who wrote it. Most memoirs just amplify whatever conversation already exists about the author. For example, Mindy Kaling’s “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” made an already warmly received actress even more popular and admired. But if Mindy Kaling’s book was cotton candy — fluffy, light and incredibly sweet — Lena Dunham’s new memoir is 90 percent dark chocolate: fanatically loved by some and reviled by others.
Reading “Not That Kind Of Girl” will probably not change your opinion about Dunham because it consists of 265 pages of things that make her such a divisive character. It is funny, but sometimes uncomfortable and a little gross. There are certainly interesting and entertaining anecdotes but a sense of privilege is pervasive throughout. Dunham was raised in Soho and had every educational opportunity available to her, but the problems she writes about don’t come off as solely “first world problems.” There are nuggets of wisdom surrounded by youthful naivete. Despite the problems the book has, I fundamentally liked it just as I fundamentally believe Dunham is a source of net goodness. She’s not perfect, but the world is a better place because she exists.
There are two things to remember about Dunham while reading this book. One: Dunham is not her character in “Girls,” Hannah Horvath, although some parts of Hannah are based on Dunham’s experiences. Two: Dunham is 28 and incredibly successful for her age. The fact that her character is unlikeable and that Dunham herself is quite successful often leads to harsh treatment from media who can’t distinguish her from her character or feel jealous of her relatively easy journey to success.
The book is separated into five sections: Love & Sex, Body, Friendship, Work and Big Picture. Each section has several long narratives which often include a funny mishap leading to a lesson learned. She separates these longer passages with lists with titles like “18 Unlikely Things I’ve Said Flirtatiously,” which includes funny one liners. This organization is a particular strength. Those five topics are exactly the topics I want to hear Dunham’s opinion on.
It is undeniable that 18 to 30 year-old women are the target demographic for Dunham’s book. While those topics are universal, this book offers a distinct perspective from a young woman. While Dunham’s point-of-view is tinted by bouts of white upper class privilege, her narratives are keenly observed and her experiences are valid. You do not need to be like Dunham to empathize with her previous problem of dating jerks. In a world where Jennifer Lawrence can call herself fat without correction, it’s nice to hear from a woman who is often criticized for being ugly.
What makes Dunham distinctive is her refusal to soften or hide her rough edges. This is part of what makes her unpopular. For example, while I like the occasional gross sex joke, Dunham loves a gross sex joke. Her book is full of them, and while some made me pause from feeling vaguely uncomfortable, others made me genuinely laugh out loud. Dunham tells us about the gross and weird sex she’s had — or just thought about — which is beneficial in a world where sex is depicted, in her own words, “[as] two people achieving mutual orgasm by breathing on each other’s faces.”
In addition, she doesn’t take the purely positive body-love track of most women who are asked about their heavier weight. The “I love my body and never feel doubt no matter what you say” speech always rang false to me because it felt like simplifying a complex situation. Dunham tackles this complexity in her book. She doesn’t pretend as if she’s never felt ugly or hurt by what the media has to say. The media has been truly cruel to Dunham calling her body and the scenes it’s featured in “gross” and “unsightly.” No matter how good you feel about yourself, repeated criticism like that has to hurt and she admits that. In addition, she mentions that sometimes diets are hard and lead to obsessions. She reveals her weekly food diary, which she mentions is one of the most intimate parts of the book. While it does not seem obviously revealing, anyone who has logged food can tell you how hard it is to do that. It is a depiction of effort and failure, a side of weight-loss stories you rarely hear.
Dunham demonstrates mastery of topics with which she has a lot of experience. In her Love & Sex section, she demonstrates why it’s not healthy to date jerks in a way that’s both impactful and entertaining. When talking about her experience in therapy, she manages to lighten the subject without taking away the weight mental illness deserves. However, on subjects like varieties of girls she’s had crushes on, she zooms around, not giving each subject the vividity and depth she gives her sister and parents.
“Not That Kind Of Girl” uses Helen Gurley Brown’s how-to book for women titled “Having It All” as a takeoff point, with Dunham attempting to writing her own sort of guide. Despite that, Dunham seems to know that she doesn’t have the wisdom or the experience to write a true self-help book — wisdom her character, Hannah Horvath, will probably never achieve. Her underlying message that perseveres through the awkward dating experiences, work mistakes and general growing pains is that “I made these mistakes so you don’t have to.” Some stories never quite come together and some of the structure is a bit awkward, but there is self-awareness and wisdom in each story. Dunham’s book is acute, poignant in places and, most importantly, funny. Dunham is not perfect, but she deserves to be heard.
Photo courtesy of Random House