E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
Hyperion, 2008

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks made my TBR list thanks to Erin Blakemore’s The Heroine’s Bookshelf, wherein Frankie is included as a literary sister to Jo March. (That’s for her ambition, largely.)

And it was nudged up the list by its inclusion on Bitch Magazine’s Top 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader list. (Oh, I know this list was contentious in some quarters, but what booklist isn’t?)

Frankie is clever and likeable. Her voice is sharply intelligent and I enjoyed the fun with language and her imaginary neglected positives.

[These are INPs (or, ‘inpeas’) and this includes words like ‘macculate’ (the imaginary neglected positive of ‘immaculate’), meaning morally blemished or strained (in contrast to ‘immaculate’). So, in this way, ‘petuous’ (from ‘impetuous’ means careful, ‘ept’ (from ‘inept’) means competent, and ‘turbed’ (from ‘disturbed’ means relaxed and comfortable.]

And the format of her story is inviting. The book opens with a letter (titled “A Piece of Evidence”), which sets the stage for a mystery of sorts, because Frankie confesses to a crime therein and readers will want the backstory. There are also emails and research notes, handwritten excerpts from a secret handbook and segments of school assignments, amidst the segments of face-paced traditional narrative, set at Alabaster Preparatory Academy.

When the story begins, with her sophomore year, Frankie is considered unremarkable in many ways.

“She was a girl who liked to read, had only ever had one boyfriend, enjoyed the debate team, and still kept gerbils in a Habitrail.
She was highly intelligent, but there was nothing unusually ambitious or odd about her mental functioning.
Her favorite food was guacamole and her favorite color was white.
She had never been in love.”

And, yes, readers are meant to anticipate that, when the story ends (and there is a slight hint about what sorts of remarkable things might transpire in the three-hundred-plus pages to come in the letter which opens the novel), there will be a contrast between Then-Frankie and Now-Frankie.

Whether readers will agree that she is transformed at the end of the novel will depend on their own understanding of Frankie’s character and on how readers define “unusually ambitious or odd”. Whether readers will agree that this novel should have been included on a list of books for young feminist readers will depend on their own understanding of feminism.

For myself, there are certainly aspects of Frankie’s story that I found entertaining and there are other parts of her story that I sincerely appreciate. (Like her struggle to define herself,  both in contrast to the portions of her social world from which she has been excluded on the basis of her sex, and in contrast to the other girls from whom she also feels distanced at times. And, also, her difficulty balancing her desire to belong with her need for independence.)

And I can imagine passing this to girls, who would probably respond even more whole-heartedly to Frankie’s spirit. (Girls 12+ or, maybe, 10+ if they’re unusually ambitious readers: the secret society with the Bassett Hound logo and the related pranks would be a big hit.)

I think if I’d met Frankie when I was younger, I would have admired her more. But, meeting her as an older reader, I feel a little like she’s selling the idea of off-roading.

Here’s how Alpha, one of the boys in the story, defines that:
“That’s exactly what these car salesmen are selling when they sell those SUV off-roaders. The idea of off-roading. No one’s seriously driving their van up a mountaintop. They just want to be the kind of guys who would drive up there. Guys who don’t stay on the path.” (208)

Frankie’s clear on her feelings about this, although she doesn’t express all of them to Alpha. “If everyone’s off the path,” she wondered, “then isn’t it an illusion?” Well, that’s a good question, isn’t it.

They’re discussing a shortcut that the majority of students take, across the quadrangle, despite the faculty’s “Keep off the grass” signs. She decides that there are more major and serious things to rebel against, but Alpha suggests that people get in trouble for rebelling against those things, and he insists that they cross the quad on the forbidden angle.

How readers define what constitutes a major and serious rebellion will impact their admiration for — and affinity with — Frankie as a heroine. It’s not that I don’t admire what she’s about, and it’s not that I don’t think younger readers wouldn’t find something worthwhile herein, but I either wanted a major and serious rebellion OR I wanted Frankie to simply be some of the things that are defined as so “unusual” rather than make such an effort to go off-road.

I realize that this sounds contradictory, but that, too, fits with my reading of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. There were aspects of the story and of Frankie’s character that I enjoyed, but I can’t help but think that Harriet the Spy didn’t try so hard.

Have you met Frankie? Do you think that I’ve missed something? (If your comment has a spoiler, please mark it, as I’ve tried to avoid discussing the ending of the novel.)

Are you as fussy about your heroines as I am?