Monday, November 12, 2012

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (2008)

Disreputable History remains one of my favorite young adult novels, and Frankie may well be my favorite YA heroine. I already reviewed this book a little over a year ago, but since I just re-read it for my Not-So-Young Adult book group for work I thought I'd add a few thoughts.

I loved the concept of the panopticon, introduced early in the book. In her class "Cities, Art, and Protest," Frankie learned that architect Jeremy Bentham designed (but never built) a prison that would allow watchmen to see all the prisoners without them knowing whether or not they were being watched. This means they would constantly feel like they're being watched whether or not they actually were, and this paranoia would reduce the amount of actual watching needed. Michel Foucault applied this idea to Western society because so many of our institutions operate like a panopticon - hospitals, factories, offices, schools. Like Alabaster Prep. This concept became a theme throughout the novel, and was helpful to Frankie as she planned her mal-doings.

I think what struck me the most upon a second reading is just how calculating Frankie is. Planning large-scale pranks without anyone (including the participants) knowing who is behind them is a challenge that requires a fairly high level is scheming, of course. But holding together a relationship with the head of the organization you are undermining without appearing to be a clingy or bitchy girlfriend also requires careful planning. During several uncomfortable conversations with Matthew, Frankie thought about what she wanted, what he wanted, and how to get him to do what she wanted without feeling like he is being manipulated or pressured by his girlfriend. She thought about how pathetic girls somehow seemed around their boyfriends, and how transparent their desperation. A lot would go through Frankie's mind in the few seconds she had to formulate thoughts during a conversation.

In my earlier review, I mentioned Frankie's feminism, which is more nuanced upon a second reading. (And I should mention that my first "reading" was on audio, and therefore I probably missed a few things.) There is a scene in which Frankie's roommate Trish told her that she was uninterested in the exclusive boys' club parties, preferring instead to bake fruit crumbles. Although Trish was just doing what she preferred to do, Frankie was horrified that not only was Trish lessening the chances of continued invitations to these parties, but she was leading them to expect fresh dessert upon their return.  It's so easy to see how Frankie comes to these conclusions, yet she keeps being trapped by her own logic. She doesn't want to be manipulated by boys, and so makes decisions based not on what she wants, but on not wanting to be manipulated, which is of course just another type of manipulation. But Frankie is still a teenage girl, and despite her over-analysis of every situation, when Matthew compliments her "most of her simply felt happy that he had put his arm around her and told her he thought she was pretty."

Frankie was drawn to Matthew and his friends because their elite and moneyed status freed them from so many of the constraints that applied to others. Yet they're not nearly as smart as she is, nor as socially aware. Matthew criticizes Frankie for overthinking, and seems displeased when she acts unconventionally. As much as Frankie doesn't want to be "put into a box" by Matthew and his friends or do what they want her to do, she is desperate to be accepted by them, to be one of the boys. Because the male gender is more powerful in her view, she needs them to legitimize her as an equal. And although she can't accept the patriarchal status quo, her constant drive to shake things up contributes to her unhappiness. The more I think about it, Frankie's situation at Alabaster Prep is just a microcosm of feminism in society.

Oh dear. I appear to have written an academic treatise. There is a lot going on in this book, and a great deal of fodder for discussion and analysis. And still some people can't seem to take young adult fiction seriously. They don't know what they're missing!

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