Brief synopsis: In her memoir How to Grow Up, Michelle Tea shares her struggle to understand a world just out of her reach: adulthood. She argues that certain markers of adulthood—living on your own, paying taxes, reproducing—don’t apply to everyone (they certainly didn’t apply to her), and as such are impractical standards when it comes to determining if you’ve got your life all figured out. Tea examines the life she’s lived by trial-and-error, and illustrates that being an adult is really about recognizing and becoming the best version of yourself.
Rating: Left behind
Long story short: For someone whose path to adulthood is on the conventional side (I went to college → I got a job → I eventually want to settle down and start a family), Tea’s non-linear journey feels raw and compelling. At times her (painful) honesty about her past as a junkie and alcoholic is uplifting, because it shows that even your vulnerabilities can unearth certain strengths.
I like the overall message—”being an adult means knowing what you want and letting yourself have it”—but Tea’s narrative voice is a little too preachy for my taste. After a while the memoir starts reading more like a self-help book that’s trying too hard to prove its point. This is not a book I can read over and over again, but do see myself referring back to certain sections on days when I want to compare myself to an ex-alcoholic and know I have my life together.
Continue reading for a more in-depth review (note: spoilers below).
Long story long: I’m sure I’m not the only adult who is terrified of adulthood. Yeah I’m 25 years old and I do certain “grown up” things—buy groceries, pay rent and bills, and have a full-time job—but I’ve also been known to eat cereal three meals in a row, play video games in my pajamas for hours, and still think driving from SF to Seattle after pulling an all-nighter is a good idea. So…where does that leave me? Well, with things sort of figured out.
Tea defines what adulthood means for herself, the same way we all do. In that sense the book didn’t provide any enlightening insights, but that’s not to say I didn’t learn anything.
I liked the way Tea is at peace with her past. Instead of allowing guilt and hindsight to eat away at her, she chooses to love her former selves for who they were, in spite of their mistakes, and strives to learn from her experiences. She says, “You make sacrifices for an interesting life”, which I think is true; you will always sacrifice something to live outside your comfort zone, and the sooner you embrace that truth, the better. There are times when she sounds like she’s more proud of than humbled by the chaotic life she lived. In a way this might be appropriate; I’d be proud too if I didn’t OD from being a junkie for years.
What I didn’t like so much was that I felt that Tea forgot she’s one of the lucky ones. While in the past she’s had to deal with drug and alcohol abuse, living well below the poverty line, and suffering through unhealthy relationships, in the present she’s a moderately successful writer, married to a wonderful woman, and living what many would call a healthy and comfortable life. So her fixation on money and wealth in many of the anecdotes feels a little out of place in a book that is trying to tell readers that they don’t need to be financially stable or successful in order to be a happy adult. On the one hand I do believe she is entitled to talk about having money, because she spent so long without it, but I also see that as an abuse of her privilege.
Overall the book reads like a joke I already know the punch line to. Won’t be reading it cover to cover again, but I’ll keep it around for its occasional entertainment value.