Not That Kind of Girl: Honesty and Comedy from Lena Dunham

Lena Dunham writes and stars in her own HBO show. She publishes essays in The New Yorker. She’s been the subject of eleventy-jillion think pieces and profiles. She’s accomplished more in 28 years than many people do in a lifetime. Yet if you pick up Not That Kind of Girl expecting to encounter a prodigy, someone to whom ordinary people cannot relate, you will be surprised. With its casual references to OCD and HPV, Taylor Swift songs and uninspiring retail jobs, Bridget Jones-style attempts at weight loss and the kind of sex that makes you “keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away,” Dunham’s book is candid, funny, and above all, relatable. Here’s why Dunham is a wickedly smart everywoman whose book you’ll want to keep on your bedside table for keeps.

She’s honest beyond belief.
This postmodern memoir is divided into sections such as “Work” and “Friendship,” each one filled with startling, thoughtful, laugh-til-your-eyes-water essays. It could be read as an elaborate, first-person version of the Us Weekly column, “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!”—only Dunham is more candid than any celebrity’s PR team would let her be, more off-the-cuff and in-your-face. She’s made it her job to tell the truth, and she tackles that job like the overachiever she is—when she’s not avoiding work entirely by hiding in the bathtub, snacking.

She’s wildly entertaining.
Whether she’s recounting interior moments or her most outrageous experiences, Dunham’s id and superego are always running in overdrive. She tries too hard. She thinks too much. She wants, she says, “to taste it all”—and although she’s speaking of food in that particular instance, the sentiment works when applied to her life, work, and love. She has the disruptive forcefulness of a toddler mixed with the innocent precociousness of a little girl and the vocabulary of a grown-up George Carlin.

She finds the best stories in the worst experiences.
Her voracious appetite leads her into any number of unwise sexual experiences. She switches private schools, switches colleges, and tries summer camp three different times before she gives up. She’s a loner, trying and failing to belong. Here she is on the distorting realities of puberty:

“I gained thirty pounds. Starting high school is hard enough without all your favorite nightgowns becoming belly shirts. But here I was, a slip of a thing suddenly shaped like a gummy bear. I wasn’t obese, but a senior did tell me I looked ‘like a bowling ball with a hat on’….All of it was alien—and alienating.”

We’ve all had an awkward phase or an ill-considered fling. Few of us come out of it with such a funny, relatable story to tell.

She has a singular voice. Over the course of the book, she demystifies subjects so potentially fraught—including but not limited to date rape, recreational and psychoactive drugs, and an amount of self-analysis that reaches Woody Allen proportions—that a high school teacher could get fired for even bringing them up in class. Yet these are the topics we need to discuss. By laying it all out there without worrying whether any particular anecdote makes her look fat, she’s starting an important conversation about the importance of acknowledging one’s own worth as a multifaceted, messy human being. She’s saying, “There, that’s me. How about you?”

So what kind of girl is Lena Dunham? Shameless about wanting to experience life and about the paralyzing anxiety that prevents her from doing that. Forthright about her ambitions and her flaws. Indifferent to what you say about her but, if you’re game and she likes you, excited to be your BFF. Engaging, paradoxical. Smart. Her book is one to be shared, savored, discussed, fought over, chortled at, and read again, a book to give to your teenage kids and your older relatives who miss Nora Ephron. Go ahead, try to get a reaction out of them. Lena Dunham would approve.

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