In her new memoir, "Not That Kind of Girl," Lena Dunham relays a charming story about meeting a new friend and fellow writer she admires in London, drinking too much wine and projectile vomiting all over the woman's living room floor. After a feckless effort to keep the last messy detail of the night to herself, Dunham blabs the story to colleagues in the first 10 minutes of a meeting the next day. "Sharing is my first instinct," she writes.
It's that brazen willingness to bare all that drives Dunham's work, and readers of this collection of smart, funny and poignant essays will thank her for it.
Divulging secrets, character flaws and embarrassing mistakes in her writing has become Dunham's trade. Unknown, unconventional and only 26, she took on Hollywood in Sylvester Stallone-style — creating her hit show, "Girls," in 2012 and getting HBO to let her write, act, produce and direct her version of the young female experience.
Fans of the show will love the book, which has the same sensibility, presenting complicated people in authentic situations who speak to her generation. Every piece bears her original humor, but Dunham digs deeper into her arsenal of personal stories and finds extra courage to reveal some tough life experiences.
You could argue that Dunham is too young to be doling out life advice, but the book's subtitle, "A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned,'" is a wink at readers. She acknowledges that she's no expert, but hopes discussing intimate topics — from losing her virginity to her struggles with crippling anxiety — may normalize the daunting process of transitioning to mature adulthood.
The book reads like a personal journal, opening with a college memory. "I'm 20 years old and I hate myself ..." she writes, a phrase likely familiar to many young women. The writing is rich and her attention to details — like her grandmother's beloved Maybelline eye pencil, or the ironic font of an old boyfriend's tattoo — create vivid characters, environments and moods.
Always pushing boundaries, Dunham doesn't disappoint with the sordid scoop — including drinking, experimenting with drugs, casual sex and kissing girls. Quick, clever musings like best-advice lists from her parents, and a hilariously self-absorbed retelling of an email exchange with an old boyfriend, are sprinkled throughout the book.
While much of the advice is aimed at millennials, she has the wisdom and depth of an old soul. Dunham beautifully expresses her regrets about high school and college, where she never felt like she fit in. She warns readers that being in a hurry to get to the next phase made her squander those years of learning.
One particularly intense memory reveals a college one-night stand that turned into rough, unwanted sex. Dunham describes the facts, carefully emphasizing her role in what happened — she drank too much, didn't heed warnings about the guy and invited him to her apartment. She never reported the incident and avoids labeling it a sexual assault, leaving readers to ponder.
Another chapter is a carefully worded, angry but empowered rant directed at men in Hollywood who marginalized, insulted, condescended to and harassed her. It's perhaps Dunham's answer to Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In," but her message is "Lay off!" (Although she'd likely use a stronger verb.) She blames herself for being too eager to please and too worried she'd appear "silly." People took advantage of her, banking on her youth and inexperience to prevent her from standing up for herself.
Many of her funniest tales focus on her chronic attraction to jerks until she met her current boyfriend, fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff. She says he changed everything, and their healthy relationship put her in "jerk recovery," where she's able to be herself.
Dunham has been called self-indulgent, and a few pieces fit that bill. Several pages of food diary entries and a list of what can be found in her purse don't add much to the narrative, but they're minor diversions in a well-written, engaging collection.
She acknowledges that she used to often put up a front, creating a "recklessly cheerful" persona who partied like a rock star without a care in the world. But the person she allows us to see in the book has weaknesses and fears, just like the rest of us. Simply put, she makes self-doubt look cool.
Dunham concedes she's on a perpetual quest for acceptance, even after finding success. Although she's become known for exposure (often appearing naked on her show), she makes herself more vulnerable in this book than ever before, conveying deep emotion with poetic grace.
"Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's 'Learned'"
by Lena Dunham
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