Review: Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham

Review by Jules Barrueco

Reviewer’s Note: Dunham’s book has been the topic of much recent controversy and often heated debate. Certain parts of her stories, and even isolated phrases, have been dissected and scrutinized under a magnifier. We at Hippocampus Magazine know all about those issues, but opted not to detract from a well-deserved discussion of her craft.

lena-dunham-book cover not that kind of girlSometime between the April 2012 debut of the HBO series Girls and the first scandal over her shorty-shorts, Lena Dunham became a household name. She’s loved, she’s loathed, she’s as controversial as leggings-as-pants. And now, she’s inviting you into her private world to share her stories – not those of Hannah Horvath, the character she writes and plays on TV, but Dunham’s very own. Don’t be deterred by her fame; this is not another unreadable celebrity memoir destined to line the hamster cage. This gifted TV writer/producer/director/actress exudes just as much talent on the page.

Dunham’s new memoir, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” (Random House, 2014), is equal parts horrifying and hilarious. In five sections, including “Love & Sex,” “Body,” “Friendship,” “Work,” and “Big Picture,” Dunham captures the female experience from girlhood to womanhood with such honesty and relatability that you’ll squirm with discomfort as your own cringe-worthy memories all come rushing back.

The brilliance of her writing is not the prose itself, though I did linger on the occasional beautiful sentence. More often, I marveled at her ability to describe chapters from my own life with such precision that I felt like I was reading from my old lock-and-key diary. Stripping her life of the glamour it entails, Dunham portrays herself as an ordinary girl, full of flaws, fears, and missteps. Just like us.

Among the issues that Dunham tackles are her attraction to jerks, girl crushes, weight loss, weight gain, vomit, friendlessness, striving to be a better student but showing up late to class with Cheez Doodles and no notebook, homesickness at camp, therapy, hypochondria, fear of resenting her children if she has them too soon, fear of death, fear of cancer, fear of what her cell phone does to her brain, fear of lamp dust.

Mixed among the humor, however, is beauty and pain. Dunham portrays falling in love not with flowers or champagne, but by describing “how hard it was, that moment between wakefulness and sleep,” before she found him. “How the moment of settling down was almost physically painful, your mind pulling away from your body like a balloon being sucked into the atmosphere. He settles that,” she explains. “He helps you sleep.”

Dunham also discusses the professional tribulations that come with being a woman. Often treated poorly by the men in her industry, she discusses those who believe “that life is a zero-sum game and girls are there to be your props.” Their day is coming, though; when she is 80, she plans to write another book and out them all.

She also tackles the delicate issue of a “sexual encounter that no one can classify properly,” admitting “I feel like there are fifty ways it’s my fault. I fantasized. I took the big pill and the small pill, stuffed myself with substances to make being out in the world with people my own age a little bit easier. To lessen the space between me and everyone else.”

She says all the things, the things that many of us have thought, have felt, but have never figured out how – or never dared – to say. Simply stated, Dunham is fearless.

Her fearlessness, however, has its occasional drawbacks. Her intense honesty could be viewed as bordering on chronic oversharing (like when she describes her period as “an itchy sting, like an encounter with bad leaves, in my vagina and ass”). Dunham gets away with it better than most though, and if nothing else is self-aware, acknowledging that “[d]iarrhea in a canyon during a lengthy hike isn’t right for every audience.”

She lost me completely just once when she included 10 ½ pages from a 2010 food journal. And although I didn’t always love her lists (think “18 Unlikely Things I’ve Said Flirtatiously” or “15 Things I’ve Learned from My Mother”), they moved quickly and didn’t detract from the other more fabulous parts of her book.

Dunham presumably wants readers to take away more from her essays than a laugh-induced bellyache, and to that end, she sprinkles some serious nuggets of wisdom throughout. In fact, Dunham gives the impression that she’s acquired a lifetime of worthwhile knowledge, which is contradicted by the fact that she is only 28. How much can this twentysomething really know about life? About pain? About loving others and loving yourself?

A lot, it appears. And by revealing all that she’s learned, she makes you feel that, just like her, you too will be okay. Even with all your flaws, all your fears, and all your missteps.

 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

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