Hyperion Books, 2008, $8.99
For whatever reason, quite a bit of time passed before I finally got around to reading The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. I was vaguely familiar with the novel, having first become aware of it when it was nominated for the Michael L. Printz Award in 2009. In fact, there were several occasions when I visited my local independent bookstore and contemplated buying a copy, though I never did. Why I’m not sure. I actually have an affinity for stories that take place at boarding schools, a result, I suppose, of my experiences reading Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and John Knowles’ A Separate Peace as an adolescent who wrestled with his own version of teenage angst. Whatever the case, I ended up reading E. Lockhart’s novel over the weekend, and found that I enjoyed it immensely. Smartly written, funny, and intelligent, the novel took me by surprise, and proved to be one of the most enjoyable young adult novels I’ve read in quite some time.
With the exception of being unusually intelligent, Frankie Landau-Banks, the book’s heroine, is in many ways a typical high school student. Upon beginning her sophomore year at a private boarding school, however, she discovers that the physical development she experienced over the summer break has earned her the attention of her male classmates, one of whom is Matthew Livingston, a figure on whom Frankie has long had a crush. Initially, Frankie is thrilled to be dating Matthew, so much so that she is able to look past behaviors that she otherwise finds irritating. Yet as time passes, she grows increasingly frustrated with Matthew’s tendency to “shelter” her and disregard her intelligence. In Matthew’s eyes, Frankie is an object to be admired, much like a doll. Thus, when she discovers that Matthew belongs to the Basset Hounds, a secretive, all-male society that she longs to infiltrate, she takes action. Recognizing that the group lacks the leadership needed to accomplish anything other than hosting keg parties on the school’s golf course, she seizes the opportunity to assert herself. Cloaked in the anonymity afforded her by email, Frankie impersonates Matthew’s best friend, Alessandro Tesorieri, the unofficial president of the Basset Hounds, and a figure affectionately referred to by its members as Alpha. Having donned a “male identity”, Frankie assumes control of the Basset Hounds and charges the group with carrying out the pranks she conceives, many of which comment on the oppressive nature of the school’s patriarchal (and elitist) structure. A personal favorite, known as the “Library Lady,” involves placing a giant canvas “bra” atop the dome of the school library, the result of which makes it look like a gigantic breast.
At its core, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks begs to be read from a feminist perspective. Throughout the novel Frankie references the panopticon, a subject Foucault addressed in his writing, and which he regarded as a metaphor for the idea that the individual is driven to conform to social norms and mores as a result of her desire to avoid falling under the gaze of society, which functions as an unseen, though omnipresent, watchdog. By no means, however, does Lockhart treat the notion of individualism simplistically. Frankie is all too aware that a decision to reject the role she is expected to play as a female will condemn her to exist alone on the margins of her society. It is this tension that gives the novel its impetus, and leads Frankie to understand why those who are unwilling to comply with social expectations inevitably succumb to madness:
She might, in fact, go crazy, as has happened to a lot of people who break rules. Not the people who play at rebellion but really only solidify their already dominant positions in society—as did Matthew and most of the other Bassets—but those who take some larger action that disrupts the social order. Who try to push through doors that are usually closed to them. They do sometimes go crazy, these people, because the world is telling them not to want the things they want. It can seem saner to give up—but then one goes insane from giving up. (p. 337)