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'How To Grow Up' Needs To Grow Up

Michelle Tea's previous books include <em>Rent Girl</em> and <em>Mermaid in Chelsea Creek.</em>
Lydia Daniller
Michelle Tea's previous books include Rent Girl and Mermaid in Chelsea Creek.

Michelle Tea has been many things: poet, novelist, memoirist, columnist, editor, drummer, film producer and darling of the queercore scene. She captured the hearts of punk-literature fans with her 1998 debut, the novel The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, and drew praise from critics with her memoirs Rent Girl and The Chelsea Whistle.

The reason she's been so beloved for so long isn't just because she's versatile and prolific, though — it's because she has the talent to back it up. In her past books, she's written with a manic, hardcore energy and a narrative sense of urgency. She's talented, hardworking and smart as hell.

That brings us, unfortunately, to her new book, How to Grow Up, a memoir/essay collection written for those whose "path into so-called adulthood has been more meandering and counterintuitive than fast-tracked." The idea behind the book isn't terrible: A successful writer with a troubled past offers counsel to people who might still be on the long and winding road to growing up. But with a few exceptions, the essays in Tea's memoir read as forced and rambling, and they're written in an odd voice that sounds more like a college newspaper advice columnist on a tight deadline.

It's a bad sign for a book when even the table of contents induces eye rolling: "The Baddest Buddhist," "I Have a Trust Fund from God — and So Do You!" and "WWYMD: What Would Young Michelle Do?" are a few standouts. There's nothing wrong with having fun, of course, but the titles are so forehead-slappingly corny, the reader has to wonder how seriously Tea is taking the book.

For the most part, things don't get much better from there. While her personal stories are undeniably interesting — Tea has lived a remarkable life — she undercuts herself constantly by pointing out the obvious lessons she's learned from her experiences. In "Beware of Sex and Other Rules for Love," she writes about a relationship she had with a younger recovering drug addict who lived "on probation and opiate blockers in her mother's room on the other side of the country." The young woman later ended up selling her pills "to junkies at the bus station."

Even for slow learners, the lessons here are painfully obvious, but Tea spells them out anyway: "Don't date people who sell pills in bus stations. Don't date people who you know in your gut are lying to you all the time, whose stories are so shady you start to hope they are lying to you." Fine advice, to be sure, but it's hard to imagine readers who wouldn't consider Tea's story and come to those conclusions by themselves.

The biggest problem with How to Grow Up is that it feels like a memoir that's been hijacked and transformed into an advice book. It feels like Tea is doing an imitation of Cheryl Strayed's "Dear Sugar" advice columns, and she doesn't seem all that comfortable in the role.

This comes across most clearly in "How to Break Up," which is exactly what it sounds like. "But first let's dump these chumps!" the first paragraph concludes, with Tea sounding like the host of a terrible daytime television talk show. "Waiting for that other loafer to drop? You drop the other loafer, damn it! Chuck it at her head and get the f out of there!" Even by the standards of self-help authors and motivational speakers, it's cringeworthy stuff.

Tea has also developed an unfortunate new predilection for precious, affected turns of phrase, often punctuated with an exclamation mark. She's "managed to scrawl a slew of books"; she believes in "intentional affirmational nondenominational prayer-ish magical-thinking magic!" and she recommends people going through breakups "[g]et a breakover instead!" (A breakup makeover, but you probably already figured that out.)

How to Grow Up is a well-intentioned, exasperating mess of a book, though it does have a few essays that mostly work: "Fashion Victim" is sweet and funny, and "Ask Not for Whom the Wedding Bell Tolls" is, despite its dreadful title, affecting and brave. Tea is nothing if not honest and courageous, and she's refreshingly unafraid to own up to her own contradictions. She's a unique talent with a distinguished career; she's written some wonderful books, and she'll probably write many more wonderful books. This is not one of them.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub
Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.