Finally we’re getting somewhere. This was my third book read for the 2009 Tournament of Books, and it was by far the one I have enjoyed most to date. If each subsequent book continues on this upward trend, I can totally deal with the few false starts I dealt with at the beginning.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (henceforth known as TDHoFLB), spans a period of about 6 months in the life of one Frankie Landau-Banks. The story starts off just before she’s about to begin her sophomore year at the prestigious boarding school, Alabaster Academy. Over the summer, she has emerged from her ugly duckling cocoon (way to mix metaphors!), and is now quite the attractive young lady (read: she has breasts!). Due to this metamorphosis, she now catches the eye of fetching upperclassmen, namely a guy named Matthew, whom she’s been crushing on for quite some time. And now he reciprocates those jelly-knee feelings!!! So they start to date. And then Frankie finds out he’s in a super secret society that her father was also a member of, only it’s so top secret that Matthew won’t even tell her about it (or acknowledge its existence). She can also forget about joining it, because it’s a top secret society that is for BOYS ONLY. This is unacceptable to Frankie, so she spends the rest of the novel trying to figure out a way to be a part of this illustrious Secret Order of the Basset Hounds.
Did I mention this book is billed as a Young Adult read? I’m guessing most of you picked up on that without my having to say so based on the précis I gave above. And the thing is, for a YA book, this is great (way better than Twilight! I know, I really have to get over it and find something else to rag on…)! If I were a 14 year-old girl, I would be all over this book, especially its not so subtle feminist overtures. But because I’m NOT a tween, or even a teen, I only liked this book rather than loved it. In fact, for me, there was very little about this book that allows it to transcend its YA categorization, and while there are certain lessons to be learned throughout its course, they’re kind of the types of lesson that apply to teen girls and (hopefully) not to those that have successfully navigated their adolescence. The writing was far better than certain other YA novels that I have already mentioned in this paragraph and will therefore refrain from calling out again, and Frankie was a pretty great heroine, but still: this is a YA novel. [Also, Frankie is nowhere near as awesome as Cassandra Mortmain.]
Now, before you think I’m decrying this novel for being YA, I’m not. Not really. I think Lockhart does a great job of writing an engaging story that deftly captures the insecurities and dilemmas that young girls inevitably face at some point or another. Yes, it’s the story of a girl who craves recognition and is very ambitious, but it’s also about a girl who’s also concerned about whether she’s pretty and how to ensure that her boyfriend likes her. I am fairly cynical, so I did sometimes roll my eyes and want to remind her that she didn’t need to compromise herself for some weenie insecure guy, but those types of thoughts and feelings are really quite apt for that demographic, and certainly there are poorer teen role models one could write (like Bella Swan, for instance… New paragraph, new rules!). All this to say that I think it’s a realistic conflict to present, and I think Lockhart does paint an appropriately nuanced picture of the muddled mess that can be a teenaged girl’s brain. And there’s a very positive girl power theme to the novel, obviously, though I couldn’t fully embrace it because the notion of feminism that is presented here is, I think, a rather counterproductive one that is perhaps a bit juvenile. I don’t really want this post to devolve into a discussion of what feminism is or isn’t, or what the right way to be a feminist is, because Tony’s already had to listen to me rant about that enough, and it’s probably a topic for another post, but I will say this: I do not like the feminist line which seeks to equate men and women. By which I mean, I think it is shortsighted and foolish to argue that men and women are the same and we should ignore differences between the sexes. My brand of feminism comes from recognizing and embracing the differences between men and women, but also understanding that these differences, while they do exist, are not the sole means, nor the most important ways, to define or judge a person. Personally, I think I’m a strong and empowered woman, but I don’t think this is incompatible with my love of shoes and flirty skirts, or the fact that I like to cook. I don’t like women who think that in order to be taken seriously, in order to be a real feminist, they have to wear “sensible” shoes and ugly pant suits, wear no makeup, and eschew anything that is considered feminine. I’m not sure how they reconcile being a feminist with “adopting masculine traits”, but I know some women who do just this, and I think it’s weird and backwards.
Anyway, to get back on track, it irked me that Frankie was so obsessed with currying favor with all the big men on campus, and that she was so determined to be accepted into their boys club. I understood her desire theoretically, but it still bothered me. This plus a few instances at the end, suggested to me that Frankie is the kind of feminist that I don’t necessarily subscribe to. [Ok, it’s not a huge spoiler, so I’ll mention what it is, but feel to skip this part if you think you want to read the book, even though I promise it ruins nothing: In the last chapter or so, Frankie mentions that she has no desire to play field hockey essentially because boys don’t play field hockey, and therefore don’t consider it a worthwhile sport (ergo, she doesn’t consider it worthwhile). And this is what I think is stupid, because if you’re going to empower yourself, then maybe you shouldn’t make every decision in reference to what other people, guys or gals, think. I’ve said it before but NOT reading an Oprah book is just as bad as ONLY reading a book because she told you too. Make up your own damn mind!] I’m much more in line with her older sister, who essentially says that Frankie would be better off just starting her own club and not letting the boys join it, or better yet, realizing that clubs by their very nature are exclusionary and doing something else with her time. But, I guess if she had followed that tack, then we wouldn’t have a novel.
On a personal note, I liked the Alabaster setting, as well as the talk of secret societies, because it reminded me a lot of the college I attended for my undergraduate degree. I knew people who got all caught up in that whole scene, as well as some people who had more money than was probably good for them, and while I’m not saying we should necessarily encourage that type of environment, it certainly struck home with me, and allowed me to reminisce about a wonderful period in my life. Obviously I don’t condone cronyism, but as world-weary as I am, I accept it’s a part of life, though perhaps not as prevalent as it once was (or maybe it is and I am naïve). I think that no matter who we are, we all try to get ahead, and a lot of this has to do with networking and making connections; perhaps we revile the old boys club, simply because it’s so overt that that’s the purpose they serve. I personally wouldn’t be above tapping a personal friend for a favor if it meant helping me get my foot in the door somewhere, but at the end of the day, I think more people succeed (or fail) based on personal merit and hard work than based on someone else pulling the strings.
OK, so maybe TDHoFLB does have stuff that people past their teens can still discuss and find worthwhile. It’s a quick read, and I had fun with it… but I don’t think it deserves to win the ToB, because I think there are probably some better novels out there (I hope there are). It kind of felt a little bit like chick-lit for the tween set, and given that E. Lockhart has recently written a book with Sarah Mylinowski (who writes both teen novels and adult chick lit stuff), I shouldn’t really be surprised by this. So, overall, I liked the book and thought it was an enjoyable afternoon read. Frankie’s a fun and spunky character, and certain ideas throughout the novel are thought provoking, but I don’t think TDHoFLB is a shining beacon in the world of fiction or anything like that, and I’m not sure what all of the 5-star ratings as awarded by adults with reference to fellow adult readers everywhere in the book world are about. If I were reviewing this solely for a teen audience, I’d probably give it a 4.5 out of 5. But since I’m not, my rating is:
Rating: 3.5 out of 5