How to Grow Up by Michelle Tea, Reviewed

Michelle Tea How To Grow Up book coverI was super excited last week to learn that Michelle Tea has a new book out. I remember discovering Tea in the stacks of the Chicago Public Library in my early twenties, and checking out this really thumbed-through copy of The Chelsea Whistle. Having just gone to school in Boston and messily high-tailing it out of there without a degree and plenty of parental disapproval, I was immediately sucked in to her stories about the struggles of growing up weird and working-class in Massachusetts. A few years later, I remember seeing her read at Quimby’s (er wait, was it Women & Children First? Or both? UGH my head is shot). Well, location and dates elude me, but it was TOTALLY AWESOME.

The new memoir documents her experiences of becoming a full-fledged adult, from her tumultuous twenties and thirties, into the more or less serene present day. Plenty of life lessons and colorful experiences. There are some parts in here that are really spot on. She is a gifted writer and her stories easily draw you in. She writes about her living situations, her relationships, travels, a little bit about her work in organizing literary events, the Sister Spit tours, and founding RADAR (which I would have liked to hear much more about over what it’s like to live in a punk house).

But there are also some parts that are just painful to read (a description of what all goes in her green smoothie, for instance), and her conversational tone started to wear on me by the end. But that’s who she is, and she’s honest about it, and I can totally appreciate that. What’s truly great is that Tea is happy and sober! Her previous books really impacted me and made me feel more substantial at a time when I really needed it. They made me realize that those fraught and confused experiences of being a young woman are important. As others have written, this memoir does get a little self-helpy. It’s not the same Tea I loved then, and that’s fine. People do grow up and do things that seem very weird (Botox?!).

The chapter on education (“Too Cool for School”) stands out as the strongest in my mind. What’s great about it is that she expertly shows how social structure and biography intertwine. As a kid, nobody ever told her there were all these different, middle-class occupations that she could aspire to. A college education wasn’t assumed, and in fact, just having to ask her mother for the application fees was a really tough thing to do. This is the kind of writing about growing up working-class that shows how economic inequalities profoundly shape one’s opportunities– that people aren’t just sitting around deciding not to make anything of themselves. It gets into a little bit of dangerous territory in the sense that she makes her way into the middle-class regardless, without going to college. It’s important to remember that this is the exception. Overall, I wish she engaged more with her politics throughout the book, because she is really pretty good at it in that chapter. (I highly recommend Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing up Working Class, a book Tea edited way back when that introduced me to a lot of other great authors).

The book is definitely entertaining and worth the read if you want to check back in with this excellent writer, though I’d suggest reading her other books before this one.