Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks--E. Lockwood

Let me explain: last Saturday I read half the review of this book in The New York Times, stopped myself as so not to quash my enjoyment, and immediately went to the library unbathed and in dirty clothes to check it out. Sartorial crimes aside, I am glad I did so, as this was one of the best books I've read this year. YA fiction is very hot right now, deservedly so because the quality is there. This book has a more engaging plot, better characters and intellectually involving themes that most adult fiction, even so called 'literary fiction," doesn't bother to touch.

So, the plot: Frankie Landau-Banks is 15 and headed into her second year at Alabaster Preparatory Academy, an upper tier Northeastern boarding school. To her family she is "Bunny," and while they are very happy she's grown into her looks, it worries them that she'll be all alone at school without her big sister. To the outside world she's an attractive, intelligent, slightly geeky, but ordinary, girl who like clothes, books and debate. And to most of Alabaster, she's just the girlfriend of gorgeous, wealthy Matthew Livingston.

And that is really all anyone expects from or imagines of her, until Frankie seizes control of The Loyal Order of Basset Hounds, Alabaster's all-male secret society, and launches a series of clever and pointed pranks highlighting the absurdities of privilege and forcing change. That she does this without anyone knowing she's behind it, including the Order, how and why--well, that's the story.

Here's the part where I go into rapturous glee about the book, and if you think you might read it, stop reading the review now because some things are best when you don't know. Drwende, you are warned--this book directly takes up some of the questions you were pondering about Emily when you were wrestling with motivation and the format of the quest while planning out her story.

Things I love about this book:

1) E. Lockwood has obviously spent some time in the East Coast upper crust prep school milieu. And so have Dusie and I (although our school was a little third rate and we were day students), so this book causes flashbacks. "Chapel is non-denominational despite the fact it's held in a Christian chapel in front of a cross, so suck it up, Jews!"--that happened in my school.

But other aspects are right on too: the odd formula by which status is conveyed by money, excellence in academics and certain sports, general coolness and exoticism, the speed and depth at which relationships develop without scrutiny by adults, the relative absence of adults, unspoken rules and class lines, the grant of limitless independence and self-determination in an atmosphere where you have no actual power. (Another hilarious aside from my school days--so one of the English teachers went to teach somewhere else for a year, came back and made a chapel speech about how he realized they were selling us a false bill of goods by telling us we could achieve anything but giving us no real power to affect change. So EVERY SINGLE PERSON running for school office made "get us some power" part of their platform. Did anything change? Of course not. But it looked great on college applications.)

2) Frankie herself--she's an intelligent, perceptive heroine with flair. Her pranks are awesome, and the way her mind works is elegant. Oh, and she's logical and argumentative and likes herself. This is not a girl who we as readers is told is "smart" but couldn't find her shoes if they were strapped on her feet. How rare is that?

3) The feminism: Kate Chopin, eat dust. This is the best novel of a feminist awakening I've read in a long time, partly because of the modern intelligence of Frankie, and also because it's realistic and not polarizing--what she wants, what drives her is a desire for respect, a desire to point out inequity and agitate for change, and a desire to belong on her own merits to a group of interesting guys who have the power inherent in their maleness to think big and go out and do things. This is a desire that's intrinsic to almost everyone regardless of sex. Frankie's not just a victim of men; the book also explored the boxes women put themselves in and the behaviors they enforce upon each other.

Additionally, Lockwood has a lovely writing style, detailed, amusing and perceptive but grounded in character. This is a good book for reading aloud. Someone please, please, please read it besides me and want to talk about it. I booktalked Dusie into giving it a try, but she's not a big reader.

So if you're looking for readalikes--Booklist has this list of other modern boarding school stories,, The P.L.A.I.N. Janes touches on the pranking, but what I'm really hoping for is this comic Genius to get picked up.

1 comment:

drwende said...

OKAY -- I know what's happening on my next pass by Borders!