Last year my wife read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and she has been recommending it to everyone since. When trying to persuade me to read it, she showed me some passages and did get me to read my first P.G. Wodehouse. Then KevinfromCanada read this book and enjoyed it. I’ve always planned on reading it, but it’s one of those you think you’ll read next, always next. Well, as you can see, I finally read what has become one of my wife’s favorite books by who has become one of her favorite authors.
The surface of this book is deceptive. It’s marketed to the young adult crowd here in the United States. Though there are many fine YA books (truly, many — it’s having some kind of renaissance or something), sometimes I give the category short-shrift, thinking that the substance and style are purposefully simplistic to speak to young adults. Many YA books, however, have complex substance and stylistic choices that, frankly, I’m not seeing in a lot of what’s selling around America these days. With this particulary book, E. Lockhart has managed to write a book that speaks to the YA group — to their interests, to their situation, and in their voice — while still expanding on complex ideas with a subtlety that appeals to the most discriminating literary critic.
So for the surface: this is a book about fifteen-year-old Frankie, who, between sessions at an elite private school, has blossomed over the summer. Boys who say they don’t remember her from her freshman year before now faun over her at the beginning of her sophomore year. Frankie is fortunate enough to catch the interest of a senior — the coolest senior boy, in fact, Matthew Livingston. She had a crush on him from the year before. He’s highly privileged. His place in society is so secure that he is free to make a fool of himself. He doesn’t get embarrassed when he laughs and spills milk down his shirt. Rather, he challenges others to be anywhere near so disgusting.
Frankie admires his freedom, but she also loves the way he worships her. She knows he really does care for her. And she’s loving becoming part of his world, even if it does consist of a bunch of boys doing dumb things at a cold night-time party on a golf course. She can’t understand why her roommate Trish doesn’t find such an event appealing. Trish would rather stay home and bake cookies with friends:
“It’s fun,” answered Trish. “Way funner than listening to guys talk about sports and slur their words, I’ll tell you that.”
Frankie found her friend’s attitude infuriating. By opting out of what the boys were doing in favor of a typically feminine pursuit, Trish had closed a door — the door between herself and that boys’ club her brothers had on the beach. Sure, she was still invited. She could open the door again. But another summer spend making crumbles in the kitchen, and the boys would stop asking her to come out. Instead they’d expect warm dessert to be waiting for them on their return.
The party on the golf course does turn out to be fairly boring and anti-climatic. But it’s not about what you’re doing. It’s about who you’re with. These are the people who hold the power in the school.
But this is not a book about popularity and its intrigues and dangers. This is not even a book about Frankie finding out that these parties are, in fact, dumb — that she should just be herself and do what she wants to do, regardless of what society says. This is a book about attempting to change what society says.
Matthew Livingston doesn’t quite let Frankie into his world entirely. He is president of Alabaster’s secret society, the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds. Frankie’s father was a Basset Hound, and even now that he’s much older his best friends are still those who were his fellow Basset Hounds at Alabaster. One night, after Matthew runs off, Frankie follows him to a meeting where the Basset Hounds are planning their Halloween prank. After the meeting, Frankie’s thoughts were “how could I have done it better?”
Frankie has a fascination with the concept of the Panopticon, that theoretical prison design where all cells face the guard station so the prisoners always feel like they’re being watched. She also finds Robert Louis Stevenson’s short stories about The Suicide Club fascinating as the members find ways to overcome that always-being-watched feeling in society that keeps us doing what we’re supposed to, that keeps us following unwritten rules.
So Frankie, feeling a surge of power and ingenuity, takes over the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds. How she does so is part of the fun of the novel. What she does as the leader is most of the fun. But even while engaging in pranks, the book maintains a multifaceted engagement with many layered. It turns out that this book also is not about female power — at least, it is not clear cut. That power doesn’t necessarily bring good thing. In the following segment Frankie has just exploded at her ex-boyfriend for telling her to be careful with Matthew.
She admired herself for taking charge of the situation, for deciding which way it went. She admired her own verbal abilities, her courage, her dominance.
So I was a monster, she thought. At least I wasn’t someone’s little sister, someone’s girlfriend, some sophomore, some girl — someone whose opinions don’t matter.
Frankie walked to her next class, not looking out for Matthew or Trish or anyone. Just feeling power surging through her, with all its accompanying guilt, righteousness, joy, and fear.
It’s wonderful to see Frankie admiring herself for what she’s done, even when she doesn’t like herself for what she’s done. But Frankie knows that what she does still isn’t enough to get her what she wants. Even as Frankie uses her intellect to prove she is just as capable, if not much more capable, to lead the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, even if they knew it was her, they wouldn’t truly let her in.
Well, I’m afraid I’m just not conveying the layers and ambiguity in this book. It’s all coming across in my words here as rather moralistic, when it actually is never clear what is good for Frankie. The book is fun and provocative. Lockhart’s style engages teenagers; it’s flowing and natural. Lockhart also engages intellectuals who like theories about how architecture conveys messages and rules to society, about symbolic meaning behind seemingly irrational behavior, and, one of my favorites, about the “neglected positive.” The neglected positive is the positive form of words such as disgruntled (gruntled) or immaculate (maculate) that we use only in their negative form. Lockhart isn’t just being clever. All of these elements come together in a highly controlled form that never allows the answers to be easy. I highly recommend getting to know E. Lockhart and the wonderful Frankie Landau-Banks.
In some ways, we can see Frankie Landau-Banks as a neglected positive. A buried word.
A word inside another word that’s getting all the attention.
A mind inside a body that’s getting all the attention.
Frankie’s mind is a word overlooked, but when uncovered — through invention, imagination, or recollection — it wields a power that is comical, surprising, and memorable.