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

Well, let’s just get this out of the way: I loved this book. It was funny, sarcastic, foreboding, serious, political, smart. I haven’t read What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell yet…but all I can say is that it must be the best book written ever to have beaten Lockhart out for the National Book Award.

Frankie has always been “Bunny Rabbit” to her family: sheltered, protected, underestimated. Previously a bit homely, Frankie returns for her sophomore year to the exclusive private school she attends, except since May she has “gained four inches and twenty pounds, all in the right places.” This gives her an “in” to the world of the rich and beautiful and she begins to date the most popular guy in the school. Frankie observes her privileged classmates, realizing that she’ll never have the carefree confidence they have. She then finds out about her boyfriend’s secret society, closed off to all but the guys from the oldest, most privileged, most moneyed families (nothing sinister – just a bunch of guys drinking beer and playing pranks). It is at this point where a change happens in Frankie. She’s tired of being underestimated and it occurs to her that, no matter what she does, she’ll never be part of the club, never be one of the guys. There will always be doors closed to her. Frankie decides to do something about it.

There is a perfect storm here. Frankie is wicked smaht: debate team, good grades, sarcastic. She comes into her own and gains confidence based on her looks, her acceptance into an exclusive peer group, and her inherent ambitious nature. On the other hand, what gives her such an authentic teen voice is that one minute she has all this confidence…and the next the reader realizes that all Frankie wants is acceptance and love. Realizing she won’t get it from the people and situations around her, she reacts. And the reaction is her growing desire to infiltrate and embarrass them, to dominate them. This story is a fascinating psychological study.

What struck me is how many themes Lockhart manages to weave into the narrative, yet I never felt the story was heavy-handed, clunky, or cluttered. Certainly, Lockhart explores feminism, and how there are certainly paths and doors that are still shut to women, and especially to teen girls entrenched in the politics and social hierarchy of high school. I would argue that this isn’t the central theme, though: rather, the main subject matter is power. Who has it? How does one get it? What do you do with it once it has been acquired? Power changing hands, losing power, domination, conformity, leadership, authority, patriarchal structures. Feminism fits into this idea because Frankie doesn’t have any power at the beginning because she is female; in order to gain power, she fakes an identity and becomes male. Only then does she rise to leadership.

Frankie has become one of my favorite female characters ever written (but no one compares to Anne Shirley): smart, complex, sensitive, independent, observant, sarcastic, confident. Lockhart writes her beautifully. Interestingly, all the other characters in the book are stereotypes…but in a hazy, impressionistic way. It’s as if every other character in the novel is sleepy, loopy, trippy. Then you have Frankie in sharp relief, and we see her so clearly. Everyone else is asleep and Frankie is wide awake at 2 a.m., seeing things for how they really are.

Lockhart uses a narrator’s voice that occasionally butts in on the story to make some observations about Frankie, or predict where the story could be going, or even tell the reader exactly how things are going to go down. I read a review that criticized this technique; the reviewer said that it kept her from really feeling connected to Frankie. I didn’t feel that way at all. Frankie spends the whole book making razor-sharp observations about the people and world around her. It only makes sense that someone would also turn that on her and put her under the same scrutiny. I felt that, while she was watching everyone and I was hearing her observations, I was also observing her and making my own judgments and drawing my own conclusions. It was an effective writing technique.

I don’t know if I could say this is my favorite children’s/YA title for 2008…mostly because, if you had asked me a couple months, I would have sworn it was One Hundred Adventures by Polly Horvath. I’m wishy-washy that way: I’m horrible at committing to a single title as my favorite or as the best. Nevertheless, I can enthusiastically recommend it to you. This book makes me wish I worked directly with teens again – I would so love to put this in the hands of those disaffected, smart, beautiful young women that I’ve worked with in the past!

Other reviews:

BlogCritics Magazine

New York Times

Teen Reads

Bookshelves of Doom

Reading Rants!


Tasha said...

I loved Frankie, too, more than I liked What I Saw and How I Lied.

Kristin Cashore said...

I can say that this was my favorite 2008 read. (Granted, haven't read HUNGER GAMES or OCTAVIAN NOTHING or a bunch of other things yet. But.) FRANKIE fascinated me, stunned me; I rarely wish for sequels, but I find myself wanting to read the sequel where she's a freshman at Harvard and Alpha's a junior and the power games start up again. I love the way those two were pitted against each other; everything Lockhart had to say about power and feminism just fascinated me. This was a book I took out from the library, read once, immediately read again, then bought so I could have it on my shelf forever.

Okay, I'm beginning to drool, so I'll stop there...