Tuesday, March 16, 2010

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

Summary: Frankie, a sophomore a Alabaster Prep, a prestigious boarding school, is surprised when the hot and popular senior Matthew takes an interest in her.  But Frankie soon realizes that she doesn't just want to be Matthew's girlfriend; she wants to be a part of his group of friends and their all-male secret society.  However, in their eyes, no matter how smart or interesting she is, Frankie is just a girl who can never be one of the guys.  Frankie's awareness leads to infiltration of the society and social protest as she aims to prove she should not be underestimated.

Musings: I think I'm typically wary of prep school fiction, but I loved Disreputable History.  And I'll even admit I have a bit of a literary crush on Frankie.  Frankie is a feminist hero who actively rebels against the unwritten codes of behavior, specifically those that govern men and women's actions, and more broadly those that govern how people act within society.  Not that Frankie doesn't experience moments of doubt along the way--after all, she likes Matthew and wants to be his girlfriend--but that won't stop her from doing all she can to prove she's more than others expect her to be.

Frankie's great at breaking down gendered standards that guide relationships.  She has an awesome rebuttal to an ex-boyfriend's paternalistic attempt to warn her against Matthew, and she has a similarly independent response to her sister when her sister says she is a toy of Matthew for wearing a shirt he gave her.  Lockhart does an excellent job capturing the dynamics of boys' and girls' relationships in high schools that I thought was very true to life.

Disreputable History also spends a considerable time on the panopticon (idea comes from a prison design): the concept that people feel as if they are being watched and judged at all times, thus causing people to obey standards of behavior even when alone.  In this way Lockhart explores how many of our behaviors and interactions are guided by fear of societal reprisal.  It's heavy stuff for a young adult book, but it doesn't feel heavy at all in the novel.

Lockhart keeps an active and conspiratorial tone in the book which, although told in third person, conveys Frankie's attitude and voice perfectly.  The social commentary is worked into snappy dialogue and the genius mechanism of Frankie's mind, so the book never feels dogmatic.

There's perhaps a bit too much time spent on imaginary neglected positives (INPs).  For example, "Impetuous means hotheaded, unthinking, impulsive.  The positive of it doesn't exist, so you can make a new, illegitimate word.  Petuous, meaning careful" (111).  It's cute and funny and something I've pondered before, but the joke drags on some.

Otherwise, I loved the book.  Frankie is the awesome girl everyone wishes he/she knew, and the ending is satisfying and realistic.  I think it would be an excellent way to jump-start discussions on gendered expectations within the classroom.

P.S.  I rarely have anything to say about covers, but the paperback cover is terrible.  I read a hardback version (cover pictured above), which I think effectively conveys the book's content.  The paperback cover looks cheesy.  It's disappointing because I know I wouldn't ever pick up a book with that cover at the store, and I think it could keep people from buying it.


  1. This is easily one of my favorite books ever. It's so refreshing to have an explicitly feminist YA character, but Frankie's also clearly not some perfect feminist avatar bringing civilized theory to the unwashed masses. Her flaws make her just as lovable as her strengths.

    Also? I hate the paperback cover. Yuck. So glad I have the hardback. I would love to know why the cover was changed.

  2. We're considering using this as a summer reading book for 9th graders (I'm so excited at the prospect, as nearly our entire curriculum is male-oriented and most of our gender discussions revolve around obvious gender divisions in texts like the Odyssey), but I'm worried the cover will turn off students. They typically buy summer reading books themselves, and they won't have the benefit of a teacher encouraging them to read. Wish I knew why it was altered too.