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Still not sure how to rate this...
on 15 August 2011
The cat put off writing a review of E. Lockhart's The disreputable history of Frankie Landau-Banks because she has been conflicted about this novel ever since she was about half-way through it. Still not sure whether to give this book * or **** stars, here's the best the cat can do to explain what made this book into such a disreputable history for her.
A while back, E. Lockhart already succeeded in confusing the cat in a similar way with the fairly underwhelming Dramarama. If memory serves her right, in this book, a rebellious main character gets kicked out of school for speaking up...and the other main character actually agreed with the punishment the aforementioned character got for speaking her mind. Needless to say, this was a message the cat could not live with....but The disreputable history of Frankie Landau-Banks got such overwhelming reviews, and ended up a National Book Award finalist and a Michael L. Printz Honor book, so why not give E. Lockhart another chance?
Frankie is 15, a sophomore at the highly prestigious Alabaster prep school, a patriarchal stronghold of Old Boy values, complete with secret all male club, The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, to boot. Though she's obviously a girl, Frankie knows about the club because her father - who, along with most of the other characters thinks of her as Bunny Rabbit - used to be a member. He still thinks fondly about the (innocent) mischief they were up to, as well as the many friendships he developed there, not to mention the Important Business Relationships that started to shape during his time at Alabaster and especially when he was pulling pranks with the Loyal Order.
The omniscient narrator of the story is not very subtle about his/her intentions and states: "How does a person become the person she is? What are the factors in her culture, her childhood, her education, her religion, her economic stature, her sexual orientation, her race, her everyday interactions-what stimuli lead her to make choices other people will despise her for?" (p. 107) As such, what we get are the single individual events that form Frankie's character and how she ended up evolving from a slightly geeky harmless Bunny Rabbit, into a subversive rebellious teenage girl who doesn't take no for an answer, especially when that means that she's excluded from the all male society that her boyfriend - the most popular senior at Alabaster, surprise, surprise - also belongs to.
Any doofushead can see that this book could easily be replaced by Feminism 101, so it shouldn't be surprising that many people see this as the ultimate girl power book. Frankie is intelligent, she knows what critical thinking entails, and is not afraid to act on her thought processes. It is not because she's a girl that she would not be capable of doing the things that the boys in the club do...heck, she can do them better, even. The acts of civil disobedience that Frankie engages in are all targeted at making the reader aware of the double standards in the still patriarchally run society and to make the reader think about refusing to accept your supposed gender role. Frankie sees that the world thinks in male boxes and female boxes, and realizes that it will probably continue to think like that. That doesn't mean that she should, though. I get it. On the strictly cognitive `makes you think' level, this book works fantastically.
Where E. Lockhart has lost me, however, is first of all in the narration of the story. I feel that the 3rd person omniscient narrator decided for us and for Frankie what the important events in Frankie's evolution to `criminal mastermind' (which is how she's described toward the end of her rebellion) were. I hope that E. Lockhart can see the ambiguity here, though... Frankie is rebelling against her supposed gender role, yet you call her actions `criminal'... Is this the saying of the (male?) omniscient narrator, or the (female) writer E. Lockhart? The omniscience of the narration, moreover, takes away any form of freedom from oppression that Frankie is aspiring to. In a way, it reduces Frankie once again into being "sweet and sensitive (though not oversensitive)". Once again Frankie is "squashed into a box (...). A box for people who were not forces to be reckoned with."
On another level, this book didn't work for me either. It's not really about the likeability of Frankie - though it really is extremely hard to feel sorry for the poor little rich girl's problems that Frankie seems to have. Here her sister Zada is absolutely right when she says "why even care?" Let Matthew have his little secret male club. Frankie should be off mapping out her own future, rather than wanting to get back at her boyfriend for not including her. Anyway, I don't mind not liking Frankie. She's basically a spoilt brat and just wants to have her cake and eat it too. But the fact that all of this plays in such an exclusive environment of the Old Boy prep schools doesn't make it a very credible book to me. OK, patriarchal society can there be seen on a micro-level, I'm sure, but how much girl power can you put in a book when the main character doesn't have to worry about such trivial things like money or the consequences of her actions?
The cat realizes that much of what Frankie has to go through is probably still painfully truthful: in a still male dominated world, regardless of the environment you are in (New England prep school or inner city ghetto, whatever), the realization that your life is partly run for you based on what is expected of you, can wear you down. Frankie realizes this. She doesn't accept it, but she realizes that this is how the world turns...still today. I wish E. Lockhart had taken the next step too, though. Even though the narrator says that Frankie will grow up to change the world, I don't feel it on an emotional level. The stand-offish narration made this impossible for the cat. * or ****? Still not sure.