The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E Lockhart, 345pp, RL: TEEN

First published on 9/10/10, Lockhart's book is one that I think all teenage girls should read. Frankie is a vulnerable but smart protagonist who challenges the status quo. I hope you'll read my review. 

 I don't think I will be revealing any secrets if I tell you here that teen author E Lockhart is also Emily Jenkins, author of young adult and picture books, since she was outed in the NY Times two years ago.  I have featured two books by Emily Jenkins on my blog in the past: Toys Go Out and the marvelous picture book which made my Best Picture Books of 2008The Little Bit Scary People, illustrated by the wonderful Alexandra Boiger. I first learned of E Lockhart when I read Donna Frietas' review of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks in the New York Times Sunday Book Review in the summer of 2008. I immediately ran out and bought the book and had my daughter read it, hoping that she might pass it among her group of friends. It seemed like the kind of book that could stir up some great discussions, if not more, among them. I always intended to read it. Great impressions were made on me as a youth by both JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and the television show that ran from 1979 to 1988, The Facts of Life. Boarding school seemed like this wonderful crucible where a person could really become herself or someone else entirely and they have fascinated me ever since. I even read Curtis Sittenfeld's novel for adults set in a boarding school, Prep.But somehow it still took me two years to read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. The release of the paperback edition this spring and my decision to start reviewing teen books meant that it got bumped right to the top of the pile. I spent one delicious Sunday on the couch reading this book from cover to cover. This is an extremely rare event for me these days of working more hours at the bookstore and trying to blog on top of that, so it was all the more special.

When we first meet Frankie in the chapter titled, “Swan,” we learn how, over the course of a summer that has been largely spent in the hammock reading Dorothy Parker and drinking lemonade, Frankie, referred to by her family as “Bunny” and thought to be in great need of shepherding and protecting, has gained "four inches in height and twenty pounds in all the right places." This change for the better has not gone unnoticed, by boys or by Frankie. While she is aware of her appearance and the power it brings, Frankie remains a "girl who liked to read, had only ever had one boyfriend, enjoyed the debate team and still kept gerbils in a Habitrail."  A returning sophomore at Alabaster Preparatory School, alma mater of her father and recently graduated older sister Zada, Frankie quickly catches the attention of the very popular senior Matthew Livingston, a boy she knows through Zada and has long had a crush on. Despite her seemingly geeky love of gerbils and debating, Frankie is almost preternaturally self-aware around boys, and in the best way possible. Not only is she able to make witty comments after crashing her bike in front of Matthew Livingston, she manages to hold her own with his jocular, self-deprecating group of friends, all of whom claim not to know her despite the fact that she, by way of her sister, sat at their cafeteria table many times in the past, and even shared conversation with them. Frankie quickly learns that these boys posses a sense of importance and entitlement that goes beyond their familial wealth and status as seniors.

These seemingly minor details are important as they illuminate the attitudes and the culture that Frankie's world is about to bump up against. Meeting Matthew and his group of friends is Frankie's first introduction to the figurative boys' club that exists at Alabaster. But, there is also a literal boys' club - the highly secretive Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds - and Frankie has known about it for years now. Since her parents' divorce when she was five, Frankie has sat through a few boozy steak dinners with her father and his prep school cronies during his visitation weekends. As Frankie says, "they would get silly, the Old Boys, from all the wine and animal protein - and they'd talk about the Bassets." As best she could glean from the conversations, the exclusive, boys only society was for committing campus escapades, sending coded messages and keeping record of it all in a notebook called The Disreputable History. When Frankie asks about the contents of the notebook, one of the cronies refuses to divulge any information, telling her that, while the existence of the club itself may not be a secret, what they get up to is. "Secrets are more powerful when people know you've got them. You show them the tiniest edge of your secret, but the rest you keep under wraps.”

When Frankie receives a mysterious invitation to a clandestine party she quickly realizes that it is a Basset’s event even though it isn't advertised as such. At the party couples, secretly matched by the Basset King (a position this year held by Alpha and Matthew) mill about on the nearby golf course in the middle of the night and drink and not much else. As the party breaks up Frankie asks herself, "If I were in charge, how could I have done it better?" Finding the antics of the Bassets lacking in creativity and novelty, Frankie, who quickly becomes Matthew's girlfriend, soon is taking a back seat to the Bassets and their tired rituals. Despite this, Frankie realizes, that, while she wants to be alone with Matthew, “she loved the way the world lit up when the boys were around – loved how they bantered with one another, teased each other, talked with one another urgently. Like the best kind of family.” As time passes and dates are cancelled, Frankie knows that she "had fallen in love not only with Matthew but with his group of friends. And she knew they didn't rate her as anyone important."

Frankie knows that she is important, and she wants to be important to Matthew and his friends as well. She wants to be recognized by them for more than being a “Pretty Girl,” despite the fact that, on one occasion, she uses her feminine wiles to convince Matthew (unsuccessfully) to keep their date instead of doing Alpha’s bidding. Spurred on by the exclusionary nature of Loyal Order of the Bassets, Frankie unravels clues that lead her to the long-lost notebook, The Disreputable History, and a whole new world, albeit it one in which she has to hide her identity, opens up to her. Frankie sets up an email account, posing as Alpha, and puts what she is learning in her Cities, Art and Protest class to very good use, coming up with some genuinely hilarious and thought provoking pranks for the Bassets to pull off.

Here Lockhart does some really great writing. Like John Green, she manages to slip interesting aspects history, philosophy, art and literature into her novel, quoting actual texts but also inserting ideas into the story by way of a paper Frankie writes for her Cities, Art and Protest class. Lockhart’s “notes on the text” provide a fascinating reading list that might inspire the reader to further explore the ideas of the panopticon (new word for me and a very exciting one, as I was able to use it at work the very next day! Thanks, E Lockhart!) interventionist art, urban exploration and more. Authors from Chuck Palahnuik to Robert Louis Stevenson to PG Wodehouse and titles like The Interventionists: Users’ Manual for the Creative Disruption of Everyday Life and If at all Possible, Involve a Cow: The Book of College Pranks appear in the “notes” as well. Inspired by Frankie and the “notes,” my daughter, who re-read the book so we could talk about it, and I spent quite a bit of time on Improv Everywhere, watching the “spontaneous” public performances and figuring out which ones could be adapted to her high school quad…

There is so much to recommend this The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau- Banks, more than what I have already laid out. Besides the excellent character of Frankie herself. Her love of the Jeeves and Wooster stories and the way the Wodehouse's "jubilant wordplay bore itself into her synapses," inspiring her to use words like "gruntled," "petuous" and "turbed" is adds depth and playfulness to her character in a Holden Caufield sort of way. Matthew is every bit as lovable as Alpha is egotistical and controlling. Frankie's very sharp, very domestic roommate Trish is believable and likable, especially for her unwillingness to be swept up by the charm of "the boys" as Frankie initially is. And, while Lockhart doesn't portray high school boys in a very good light on the whole, she does allow Porter Welsch, Frankie's cheating ex-boyfriend from freshman year, to redeem himself somewhat. Frankie's pranks, from the Library Lady to the Doggies in the Window to the Canned Beet Rebellion are inspired and executed brilliantly. On top of everything else, Lockhart manages to weave a theme of suspense and danger throughout the story as Frankie sets up the Bassets and arranges the pranks, staying one step ahead of Alpha and the panopticon that exists at Alabaster Prep. I strongly recommend this book for all thinking teen girls out there. Not only does Lockhart present a thoughtful protagonist who is not willing to settle for the status quo, but one who questions what it means to be a girl, especially a girl in relation to a boy. Weeks into their relationship, Frankie "begins to see that although Matthew welcomed people into his world with surprising warmth - it didn't occur to him to enter anyone else's" The ending of the book is heartbreaking, but in a teenage, slightly less damaging sort of way. When Frankie reveals herself, of course the boys turn on her and with a swift and severe freeze, Matthew especially. And in this, too, Frankie remains herself, strong and unafraid. After one last failed attempt to engage Matthew, she watches him and the Bassets head across the campus, thinking to herself, "It is better to be alone, she figures, than to be with someone who can't see who you are. It is better the lead than to follow. It is better to speak up than stay silent. It is better to open doors than to shut them on people."

Found this image of the German cover of the book on E Lockhart's website - too funny, when you know what the joke is...

Other fantastic YA books by E Lockhart which my teenage daughter and, surprisingly enough, husband have read and enjoyed!

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