Not That Kind of Girl
A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned'
By Lena Dunham.
Random House. 265 pp. $28
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Reviewed by Hillary Rea
Any mention of Lena Dunham's name in conversation is bound to elicit a reaction.
Within the zeitgeist population - pop culture enthusiasts, avid New Yorker readers, bitter bloggers - those reactions will be diverse: an eye roll, an "OMG, she is amazing!", or an inquisitive, "Is she the one who is naked all of the time?"
For those who aren't Lena Dunham fans, Not That Kind of Girl has the potential to convert skeptics into admirers. Many have already been swayed by her HBO television series, Girls, and its ability to persuade the audience to fall in love with characters more often than not despicable in nature.
In this collection of autobiographical essays, Dunham is no longer the woman people love to hate. She writes with enough self-awareness (and complete lack of irony) that we accept the moments in her personal stories when she is obnoxious, whiny, and sheltered from the world beyond a liberal, privileged Manhattan upbringing.
In the introduction, Dunham says, "There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman." She also cites Helen Gurley Brown's 1982 manifesto (rather, woman-ifesto), Having It All, as having a huge influence on her life.
As a homage to Brown, Dunham divides Not That Kind of Girl into handbook-style sections: Love & Sex, Body, Friendship, Work, Big Picture. Although highly organized, some of the essays don't make sense sequentially, and others don't fit in with the section's theme.
The sections on Body and Big Picture demonstrate the same kind of candid humor and Lena-centric worldviews that mark her other work, but here they are more meaningful than annoying. There's no wink-nudge in the punchlines. Instead, the jokes naturally emerge from her stories about struggling with obsessive/compulsive disorder, yo-yo dieting, and wanting a therapist who both analyzes and mothers.
In "Therapy & Me," the strongest essay in the collection, Dunham dissects her unusual doctor-patient relationship with various psychologists. There's the unnamed German lady, then Robyn, and finally Margaret, to whom the story becomes an ode. She credits Margaret with providing her the ammo to fight every emotional battle. And hopes maybe she has impacted her in a significant way, as well. After one phone call with Margaret, Dunham imagines: "Maybe she forgot our roles for a moment, and we became just two women, two friends on a long-distance call. Catching up about our houses, our husbands, our lives."
Dunham excels in verbal snapshots of off-kilter characters. In "Who Moved My Uterus," she introduces Randy, her gynecologist. Before practicing medicine, Randy played for the New York Mets. "He still has the can-do determination of a pitcher on an underdog team and, to my mind, that is exactly the kind of man you want delivering your babies or rooting around in your vagina."
Sandwiched between essays that exude brilliance and insight well beyond Dunham's 28 years are a bunch of "listicle" chapters clearly there to reel in millennials addicted to Buzzfeed. With titles like "18 Unlikely Things I've Said Flirtatiously" ("16. I seriously don't care if you shoplift") and "My Top Ten Health Concerns," those who fell in love with Dunham in previous chapters will breathe an exasperated sigh.
There are moments when Dunham shifts from direct narrative to a more elusive, poetic style of storytelling. When she trails off into these vague flourishes, her personal tales shift from first person to the intangible "You" and instantly disconnect. This is especially evident when she talks of her current relationship with heartthrob musician Jack Antonoff. For someone often both literally and figuratively naked, this elusiveness comes off as frightened and immature.
Eye-rolls and "Ughs" forgiven, reading this book is a pleasure. The illustrations that accompany each chapter contribute to the whimsy of Dunham's words and are reminiscent of a mid-20th-century Girl Scout handbook. Drawn by her childhood best friend, Joana Avillez, the pictures capture Dunham's spirit at its most delightful. In fact, all the friendships portrayed in the book mirror the moments in Girls that showcase the complicated intimacy of Hannah's relationship with her besties Shoshanna, Marnie, and Jessa. And this is when Dunham shines: straying from her deepest, darkest neurosis and placing her supporting players in leading roles.