J Brooke’s Review of Melissa Febos’ Girlhood (audiobook)




While reading Melissa Febos is never a mistake, her new audiobook (the one I first listened to in order to write this) was laden with them. Literally.

A momentarily distracted audio producer likely deserves thanks, not blame, for mis-editing eight superb essays exploring the varied thresholds (both psychic and corporeal) females navigate during their journey from child to woman. In other words, the entire recording is intact, with misspeaks and re-takes, thoroughly un-edited . . . eliciting that insider feeling one gets viewing original sketches displayed alongside corresponding finished oil paintings.

As a frequent audiobook listener, I was first confused, but then thrilled, when I realized what was transpiring within my Audible account. I was the lucky un-invited audience to the behind-the-scenes listen of the book’s original recording. I was riveted as the narrator consistently read a sentence, paused, and then re-read it with adjustments of inflection and emphasis. Who was the thoughtful narrator conjuring these subtleties? The book’s author, Melissa Febos herself!

Listening to an author of Febos’ caliber wrap her tongue and brain around her own work, then re-wrap it, again and again, tweaking tones, winnowing inflections, until she was satisfied, was likely the most interesting audio experience I’ve had since happening upon a radio re-broadcast of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” as a gullible eight-year-old, believing for almost 60 minutes that the planet earth had been invaded by space aliens.

The publication that originally hired me to write the review immediately alerted the producers to this (glorious) gaffe, so future listeners downloading future versions received the meticulously edited one seamlessly supplanting the original. Too bad. Because hearing this author’s brilliance laid as bare as scenes she crafts of want and yearn and pain and pleasure was the rarest of gifts.

Each of the eight essays in Girlhood (linked only by titular theme), occasionally humorous and consistently gut-punching, end up entertaining without traumatizing the reader/listener – and while that delicate balance is as clear in the cleaned-up audio version as it is on the page, within the original audio the listener becomes a classical musician following the baton of a world-class conductor, as Febos conducts herself to deliver her prose within that narrow margin of restraint. 

Note: Printed first editions of well-known books containing typos (ex. Arthur Miller’s Tropic of Cancer) frequently sell at auction for thousands of dollars. In the not-too-distant future will audiobook mishaps garner such collectability? Who knows. . . but just in case, I’m keeping this one.

Febos, Melissa. Girlhood. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.