E. Lockhart: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

* This post has been edited since its original posting because, frankly, it was cobbled together quickly and was no good.  It still doesn’t do this book justice, but I hope it conveys my sincere respect and admiration a bit better.

Last year my wife read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (2008), 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.

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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.

9 thoughts on “E. Lockhart: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

  1. Frankie is holding up very well with time — all my memories of this book are positive. It is interesting the YA literature acquires that tag (and sells a lot) and tends to get overlooked by adult readers. And while your review has focused on the serious aspects of the novel, I would underline that parts of it are more than clever — and very, very funny. Mrs. Berrett deserves a major pat on the back for bringing this one to our attention.

  2. Mrs. Berrett says:

    Coolest boy in school? What is this, 1997? Matthew is not the coolest boy in school, that would be Alpha. Matthew is just the most perfect boy, and even that I think only comes from the female perspective (Alpha is too much of a playboy).
    I actually think that is an important distinction for the novel. It’s the reason Frankie can’t compete with Alpha (or me with Brian, or probably Kevin for that matter, if he lived closer). It’s possibly one of the factors that drives Frankie to do what she does, a need to be as much a part of Matthew’s world as Alpha is (no worries, I have no intentions of hijacking your ping-pong competitions with your brother).
    One of the things I found so interesting about this book was the complications it portrays with feminism. Frankie is struggling to be just as important as Alpha, but to do that, she needs to get a nod from Alpha. The only way feminism can succeed is to get the patriarchal nod, defeating the whole purpose.
    But even more than that, the struggle Frankie herself has with being female and the expectations that brings. For Matthew it means she must be clever, beautiful, but for the most part silent. For Zada it means Frankie can’t adhere to any notions of romance. Frankie herself struggles, flinching from phrases like “you’ve got balls,” but being flattered by being offered Matthew’s shirt. How much of who Frankie is depends on Zada and Matthew’s interpretations?
    That seems to be a big theme through the book, starting with her as bunny rabbit. I like the way it starts, and ends, with Frankie being a possibility.
    Something else I loved was the social warfare, particularly from Starr and Alpha. It was weird to read it from an outsiders point of view because I totally did that in school, but never consciously made the decision to do it, it was just there. I appreciated that the book called it to my attention.
    This really is a fabulous book. Every time I think about it I get more and more impressed with how much E. Lockhart was able to put in there and how everything seems to go together (Panoptic, P.G. Wodehouse, Feminism, High School Hierarchies). I think she’s brilliant!

  3. Trevor says:

    Mrs. Berrett brings up many points that I, through neglect or lack of intelligence, failed to note in my review. I’m hoping that the weight of our opinions plus KFC’s will encourage people to read this book. And, Mrs. Berrett, it’s been a long time since I had a decent ping-pong tournament, and I’m pretty sure it is your fault.

  4. Mrs. Berrett says:

    Oh, you forgot to finish your sentence! Here, let me help you:
    I’m pretty sure it is your fault because I only want to spend time (and money) on you! Sports have nothing on the entertainment you bring to my life.
    Very sweet.
    Sara Zarr, another excellent YA author, did an interview with E. Lockhart that I found really interesting. You can find the interview here:
    http://www.sarazarr.com/archives/1368
    They discuss some things that are interesting, like the power of looks for females. Obviously Frankie gains social power because of her looks, but loses intellectual clout. On the flip-side, Sara Zarr comments on being powerless and ignored because she wasn’t attractive.
    Here’s a small sample (SZ is Sara Zarr, EL is E. Lockhart):
    SZ: It seems that books can be similarly misjudged. I’ve always thought that your books are like Frankie—formidably brainy in adorable skin. Because the stories are fun and entertaining, the intelligence within them might be overlooked. Was being a finalist for the National Book Award validating in that regard?

    EL: Oh, it is very nice to be validated by the patriarchal establishment. That is what Disreputable History is about, after all.

  5. Nothing at Alabaster offered Frankie a suitable challenge — until she discovered the L.O. of B.H. And then, the social anarchist part of her said that was where she should exercise her influence. And she did. One of the more interesting feminist sides of the book is that it is only here that Frankie can find an outlet for her creative side — yet, as Mrs. B points out, there was still a part of her that could not go there. And we have not even explored the games that she plays with language, which go well beyond anything that she was being taught. One of the more powerful aspects of the novel is the way that Frankie finds avenues to explore her ability that are well outside the mainstream of what she is supposed to be learning and experiencing. I think that is where E. Lockhart has written a truly innovative modern novel.

  6. It does sound very good, your bold comment at the start got my sympathy by the way Trevor, I posted up my Amitav Ghosh too soon and then had to reedit it and ended up deleting about 400 words. It was still too long after that, but there comes a point where you either start again from scratch or live with it.

    Anyway, I’d noted this when Kevin wrote about it, there does seem to be a bit of a YA renaissance at the moment and YA or not this sounds very good regardless. I’ll take a look, alien to me as its talk of sophomores and all is.

  7. Trevor says:

    It’s a worthy read, Max. And I’m pretty sure the sophomore/senior talk will make sense quickly. If not, come back and we’ll straighten it out :).

  8. Max: I am pretty sure that Emma would find aspects of Frankie’s character worthy of note.

  9. Mrs. Berrett says:

    Kristin Cashore (YA fantasy writer) just did a name analysis of Frankie. I was actually linked there from E. Lockhart’s blog so I’d say it’s fairly accurate.

    http://kristincashore.blogspot.com/2010/07/frankie-alpha-matthew-names-power-and.html

    She brings up a lot of points that I was aware of, but hadn’t taken the time to really think about. Her thoughts on Matthew’s character was particularly interesting to me.

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