The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau Banks (2008) by E. Lockhart
Frankie Landau-Banks at age 14: Debate club. Her father's "bunny rabbit." A mildly geeky girl attending a highly competitive boarding school.
Frankie Landau-Banks at age 15: A knockout figure. A sharp tongue. A chip on her shoulder. And a gorgeous new senior boyfriend: the supremely goofy, word-obsessed Matthew Livingston.
Frankie Landau-Banks: No longer the kind of girl to take "no" for an answer. Especially when "no" means she's excluded from her boyfriend's all-male secret society. Not when her ex-boyfriend shows up in the strangest of places. Not when she knows she's smarter than any of them. When she knows Matthew's lying to her. And when there are so many, many pranks to be done.
Frankie Landau-Banks, at age 16: Possibly a criminal mastermind. This is the story of how she got that way.
Review: I've read this book twice now, and let me tell you: it's even better the second time around. In fact, I liked it so much that I wrote a list of what made it good. I will now share that list with you. Before I do, though, I should perhaps share some things about myself that make me predisposed to like this book: 1) I was a debater for the first three years of college, 2) I'm a Women's Studies minor, and 3) I'm sort of in love with postmodern philosophy and critical theory. ALL OF THESE THINGS ARE IN THIS BOOK.
Frankie: Awesome. Fifteen. Smart. Hot new bod. Her cool sister Zada is off to college, but they chat frequently.
Matthew: Cute, popular senior. Member of the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, a secret all-male organization on school. Frankie's dad used to be a member, but he won't give her details because it's "secret" and "all-male." Matthew likes Frankie immediately, now that she's got her noticeable new bod. The year before, Zada had introduced them and Frankie had even eaten lunch with Matthew and his group, but he doesn't remember any of it.
Alpha: Mercurial, more-than-meets-the-eye kind of guy. One of Matthew's best friends. Met Frankie over the summer in a fleeting but memorable encounter. Which he says he doesn't remember. Also a member of the Basset Hounds.
Why it's so good:
1) Lockhart does a really good job (using Frankie as her channel) of cataloging various instances in which women are underestimated, undervalued, and intruded upon. This is evidenced in Frankie's everyday experiences with almost everyone. For example, in the opening scene, Frankie is on vacation with her family and wants to walk into town, but her mother won't let her and her uncle says it isn't a good idea. Except we learn Frankie's twelve year old (male) cousin, Paulie Jr., was allowed to go the year before without any questions. Later, her mother (who insists she does not underestimate Frankie), asks if she can carry a bowl of potatoes to the table, warning that it is "very heavy."
2) Frankie has a really interesting way of observing and noting what she sees and experiences, as though storing it for reference at a later date. I especially enjoyed a scene where she is invited to a night-time party on the golf course by Matthew. Instead of being cool and fun, it's poorly organized and mostly boring. Lockhart writes, "Although she went home that night feeling happier than she had ever been in her short life, she did not confuse the golf course party with a good party, and she did not tell herself that she had had a pleasant time. It had been, she felt, a dumb event preceded by excellent invitations. What Frankie did that was unusual was to imagine herself in control....She asked herself: If I were in charge, how could I have done it better?" (p. 85-86).
3) The emphasis on how Matthew, Alpha, and their group of friends use space. Space is intimately linked to power (those in power are given more space, use more space, invade others' space more readily, and touch others more). Lockhart hints at this relationship several times, whether it be the boys sprawling in their chairs or the way Alpha jogs across the cafeteria for butter while his plate remains on the counter, calling to the lunch lady to let him know when there's hot bacon. Which, to me, really gives the sense that he sees it as his right to use that space (and that much of it). He doesn't think twice about it. Which kind of leads into the next point.
4) Unearned privilege. There is lots of it in this book, and Frankie points it out. Her own included. Frankie mentions (several times) the doors being opened by virtue of having enough money and connections to attend Alabaster, the additional privileges the boys have just for being boys, and again the way space becomes a very real representation of this kind of thing.
5) The panopticon.* Originally designed by Jeremy Bentham as a prison, Michel Foucault took the idea and used it as a metaphor. Lockhart describes it thusly: "The architecture of Bentham's panopticon was created to allow a watchman to look at all his prisoners without the prisoners knowing whether or not they were being observed--making them feel as if they were constantly being watched by an omniscient being. In other words, everyone in the panopticon knew they could be watched at all times, so in the end, only minimal watching actually needed to happen....Michel Foucault uses the idea of the panopticon as a metaphor for Western society and its emphasis on normalization and observation. Meaning, we live our lives in places that operate like the panopticon. Schools. Hospitals. Factories. Office buildings. Even the streets of the city" (p. 53-54). Like I already said, I'm a fan of philosophy and Foucault, so to see it IN A YA BOOK blew my socks off.**
6) I should also mention that plotting, characterization, and pace were excellent. I might have made this book sound like it's theory-laden and dry and boring, but it is not. Lockhart weaves these elements in without losing any momentum or narrative feel. There's also a whole bunch more to the plot than I've gone into here. And, of course, there are other aspects of the book that I like, but this review is too long even for me at this point.
Conclusion: 5/5. Absorbing, exciting, and thoughtful, this book is one that gets better each time I read it. Frankie is one of the best female protagonists I've read in a long time. I love that it gets into issues like gender, feminism, power, and philosophy while remaining a fun read with dynamic characters.
* This is an approximation of the panopticon design:
**Actually, my socks stayed on my feet. But, you know.
FTC: Bought it myself. No relationship to author/publisher/distributors.