YA Co-Review: The Frankie Mystique

h1 May 15th, 2008 by Eisha and Jules

Jules: It’s been a little while since Eisha and I have done a straight-up co-review—just the two of us—of a YA title, but here’s one — E. Lockhart’s latest, at that: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (Hyperion, March 2008).

Fifteen-year old Frances Rose Landau-Banks—class of 2010 and otherwise known as “Bunny Rabbit” to her family—has just returned from summer vacation to Alabaster Prepatory Academy, the elite, competitive boarding school her father himself once attended. “Mildly geeky” before, she gained twenty pounds over the summer, “all in the right places,” and now has a figure that turns heads, the same brilliant mind and quick tongue she always did, and—this year—a new boyfriend, Matthew Livingston, a senior at Alabaster (though, as far as Frankie can figure out, “{t}he only thing {she} herself had done to facilitate the change was to invest in some leave-in conditioner to tame the frizz”).

Matthew’s circle of friends and social world, one of camaraderie, self-confidence, privilege, and ease, is one Frankie finds fascinating and non-existent amongst her female friends. While finding intriguing similarities between life on campus and Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon she’s studying about in her Cities, Art, and Protest course, Frankie has her own internal struggles about being attracted to Matthew, who is smart, handsome, and often endearing but who also refuses to let her into his inner circle of friends. (Matthew even loves words like Frankie, who likes to play with what she calls her own imaginary neglected positives, or INPs, meaning you take a negative word or expression whose positive is almost never used, and you use it. Or “you impose a new meaning on a word that exists but, through the convolutions of grammar, doesn’t technically mean what you are deciding it means.” Think turbed from disturbed or criminate—from incriminate—which she uses to mean “give someone an alibi.” The latter example is a fitting one, indeed, since Frankie herself becomes somewhat of a criminal mastermind herself during the course of the story.)

When she finds out that Matthew and his friends all belong to the Loyal Order of the Basset Hound, a secret society to which her own father belonged when he was a student years ago, Frankie’s interest is piqued. However, not only will Matthew and his friends not let her join; Matthew avoids the subject altogether, never once telling her about it. Thus challenged, she formulates a plan to anonymously work her way into the Bassets and convince them to perform a series of pranks on the school, ones which challenge the status quo socio-political atmosphere on campus. And she does this for many reasons — but primarily because she was tired of being Bunny Rabbit:

Not a person with intelligence, a sense of direction, and the ability to use a cell phone. Not a person who could solve a problem . . .

To them, she was Bunny Rabbit.

Innocent.

In need of protection.

Inconsequential.

* * * * * * *

So, Eisha. This was my first E. Lockhart book. Gasp! I really liked it. I did not expect the teen-feminist underpinnings (is she known for such things, and I’m just really slow?), and I really liked it. What’d you think? To say we have nui for this book (the neglected positive of ennui) doesn’t really follow Frankie’s grammatical rules for such creations, I suppose.

I guess I should quickly warn first: Some plot spoilers below.

Carry on, then.

eisha: I liked it too. I’m afraid I don’t know if feminism is a big theme in Lockhart’s other works, either. But it made for some thought-provoking subject matter in this one, for sure. I thought it was fascinating the way she depicted the whole “old boy” syndrome: privileged young guys forming these tight friendhips in school, then going on to be each other’s business connections in adulthood. It’s a charmed and charming existence, one that Frankie is drawn to when she starts dating Matthew and hanging with his crowd:

…Frankie adored not only Matthew — she also adored his world. He and his friends seemed… better than her and hers.
Not because of money.
Not because of popularity.
Not because they were older. Expensive clothes and high status had little effect on Frankie. But their money, and popularity made life extremely easy for Matthew, Dean, Alpha and Callum. They did not need to impress anyone and were therefore remarkably free from snarkiness, anxiety, and irksome aspirational behaviors, such as competition over grades and evaluation of one another’s clothing. They were not afraid to break the rules, because consequences rarely applied to them. They were free. They were silly. They were secure.

Frankie’s desire to be accepted by them as an equal is palpable; and it makes sense that, when she keeps running up against that glass ceiling, her desire to take the whole system down becomes just as powerful.

Actually, this ties into another really interesting feature of the novel for me. The book is written from an outsider/observer perspective (although one with the ability to read her thoughts), as though they were writing a psychological profile of Frankie to attempt to explain why she did what she did. I thought that was an unusual approach. It gives the narrative an intellectual, analytical feel that I think will appeal to teens who are thinking of becoming psych majors. And it ties in beautifully with the Panopticon theme that appears throughout the text. But I wonder if it creates too much of a distance between the reader and Frankie to make any kind of deep emotional connection to the story possible. It kind of felt that way to me. What do you think?

Jules: I remember liking that description of the boys, too, and when Frankie noticed Matthew’s “seeming immunity to embarrassment,” which she felt came from their popularity and money, as you said (rather, the confidence those things gave them). And then there was the moment she realized that she wasn’t worried about losing Matthew’s affection so much as losing her status with his friends.

Yes, Frankie did a lot of bumping into glass ceilings. But I also liked how Lockhart shines a light on the gender roles in your typical teen relationship today—romantic, that is—and gender roles in social settings. There was Frankie’s struggle to prove her worth in taking the system down, as you put it. But there was also the shock she experienced in realizing that her boyfriend expected her to be entirely more passive than she was. I kept dog-ear’ing those pages:

  • There was the moment when she found herself irritated with her friend Trish when she was telling Frankie what she did over the summer (opting to bake crumbles instead of be with the “boys’ club” on the beach): “Frankie found her friend’s attitude infuriating. By opting out of what the boys were doing in favor of a typically feminine pursuit, Trish had closed a door—the door between herself and that boys’ club her brothers and her boyfriend had on the beach. Sure, she was still invited. She could still open the door again. But another summer spent making crumbles in the kitchen, and the boys would stop asking her to come out. Instead they’d expect warm dessert to be waiting for them on their return.”
  • There was Frankie’s discomfort over Matthew calling her a “pretty package,” describing her as little, and telling her not to change—”as if he had some power over her” (and then Frankie feeling conflicted, ’cause “most of her simply felt happy that he had put his arm around her and told her he thought she was pretty”). And, toward the close of the book, he calls her “harmless,” which really made her feel “squashed into a box—a box where she was expectd to be sweet and sensitive (but not oversensitive); a box for young and pretty girls who were not as bright or powerful as their boyfriends. A box for people who were not forces to be reckoned with.”
  • There’s that fabulous part in the chapter entitled “The Golf Course” with Frankie’s explanation of how young women, “when confronted with the peculiarly male nature of certain social events,” will react in one of three ways. It’s too long to reproduce here, but it was eye-opening. And, more importantly, it was the pivotal moment in which she asked herself (having decided the party in question had been “a dumb event preceded by excellent invitations”), {i}f I were in charge, how could I have done it better?” And her conversation with Elizabeth and Alpha in the “Sea Horse” chapter about the competitive nature of boys vs. girls.
  • Okay, this is getting long, so I’ll stop. But the last one I’ll add here is when Frankie generally starts to notice that Matthew welcomes people into his world with “surprising warmth,” yet “it didn’t occur to him to enter anyone else’s”:

    Lots of girls don’t notice when they are in this situation. They are so focused on their boyfriends that they don’t remember they had a life at all before their romances, so they don’t become upset that the boyfriend isn’t interested.

And then all her conversations with Zada, her older sister, who is warning her not to let Matthew erase her. Why I am listing all that in my logorrheic manner? ‘Cause I still can’t get over the Feminism-101-for-Teens here in the novel. I want to give it to every young teen girl I know in a bad relationship. I’m probably being really naive here in that perhaps Lockhart’s other books are like this and perhaps there are other YA authors out there providing this kind of stuff—strong feminist role models for teens. I admit I don’t read as much YA as tons of other bloggers out there. But I really loved it.

I can see what you mean about the emotional connection to Frankie—or the lack thereof—what with the analytical tone of the psychological-profile approach you mentioned. But, overall, I think I was fairly turbed with it (the neglected positive of disturbed — I have to throw in one of Frankie’s imagined neglected positives). I think Lockhart makes up for it in two big ways: With Frankie’s fervent struggle to prove herself as more than just Bunny Rabbit to her family, which I became emotionally invested in, and with the fact that Lockhart didn’t make Frankie a one-note character. Sure, she has strong feminist leanings, but she was also occasionally conflicted due to her physical attraction to Matthew, as in the example I gave above. She is more human to readers, ’cause of that, I think.

MY GOD, I’m sorry that was so long, Eisha. But I was struck by all of Frankie’s commentaries on gender politics in the social and interpersonal realms and had to share some.

Here’s a more superficial question for you: What do you think of the cover? Do you think teens will pick this one up with that cover?

eisha: Nope, sorry, I gotta respond to your last point before I get all superficial on the cover.

Okay, yes, Frankie is multifaceted, and interesting, and funny (really, I did love the neglected positive idea). There are strong female, even feminist, characters in YA lit, but I haven’t read anything that addresses the kind of leftover sexism that teen girls still deal with as directly and pointedly as this novel does. BUT: look at the ending – not the plot ending, ’cause I’m not trying to give it all away here, but the last handful of psychoanalytical statements about Frankie herself. We’re given the idea that Frankie, since she’s so strong-willed and clever and determined to open any door that others have closed to her, is in for a rough life, maybe also a lonely life. And she’s physically scarred. Oh, and also, she might go nuts in the bargain. Given that, is Frankie being set up as a feminist role model, or as a warning against extreme feminism/activism?

The cover: meh. I love the title, so that’s what would have grabbed me if I saw this on a shelf.

Jules: Very good point, you. I didn’t read it as a warning against feminist activism, but I was struck by the flipping back and forth between the she-might-go-crazy and the nah-she’ll-probably-be-okay. First there was “{s}he might, in fact, go crazy, as has happened to a lot of people who break rules,” and that was immediately followed by “{b}ut on the brighter side . . . {m}any doors will open to her easily, and it may be that she can open the ones she wants to without too much pain or strife.” And, even better, after that there is:

And so, another possibility—the possibility I hold out for—is that Frankie Landau-Banks will open the doors she is trying to get through.

And she will grow up to change the world.

But then we see her as she’s finishing her sophomore year, and there’s that terribly depressing moment with Matthew (no matter what you think of him, it’s sad on many levels). BUT THEN Lockhart closes the book on that terrifically hopeful note in which Frankie decides “{i}t is better to be alone . . . than to be with someone who can’t see who you are. It is better to 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.” So, since she closes on that ray-of-light note, I think she is most certainly not saying that feminism isn’t worth the time of teens. I think she’s saying: It’s hard as hell, but it’s better than being erased.

What a great book, huh? My world would have been pretty rocked if I’d been given this as a teen, even though I didn’t date (I was a *cough* nerd *cough*). How ’bout you?

eisha: Hell, I can think of quite a few adults who could use the bracing dose of girl-power this book delivers. It’s funny, I think I – and maybe other women of our generation? – always had a tendency to take feminism for granted. Women already had the right to vote, the right to work, the right to join the army, etc. by the time I came of age. And since I tended to hang with an artier/nerdier/much less testosterone-driven crowd than Frankie, it wasn’t a huge, obvious issue in my friendships or dating relationships the way it was for her. I barely gave feminism a thought as a teen, except when my mom would let slip a little tidbit from the past, like the fact that women had to wear skirts at her college. And I ended up in a pink-collar profession, so it hasn’t been a huge issue for me work-wise either – although the argument could be made that the traditionally-female-driven professions still don’t earn the money they deserve.

Anyway, my point is, I think a book like this would have been a real eye-opener to me. Because sexism is sneaky. Even now, with all that history behind us, it’s really easy to just slip into those traditional gender roles without even realizing it. Especially when you’re young and insecure, and new to the dating thing, and you really really like a boy, and really really want him to like you back… Maybe part of why it’s so easy is that all that history is just far enough behind us that we don’t talk about it anymore, but not so far behind us that we’re totally rid of the girl-as-ornament syndrome.

Sorry, now I’m running long. Short answer: yes, this book would have rocked my world. And I’d recommend it for any teen who appreciates a quirky, intellectual storytelling style, complicated romance, and crime capers.

I think we’ve probably talked this one into the ground. Thanks, Jules, for the stimulating discourse.

Jules: Ooh, hard to stop here. Very good points there, Eisha. But perhaps some of our readers, who have also read this novel, will want to weigh in. Anyone?

Thanks, Eisha. ‘Twas fun, as always.

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23 comments to “YA Co-Review: The Frankie Mystique”

  1. What a great discussion/review! I was blown away by this book and dying to discuss it with someone when I finished. (Didn’t manage that, quite, but I did get two people convinced to read it, and another put Dramorama on her TBR list, which was satisfying.) I’d definitely recommend the Roo books – The Boyfriend List and The Boy Book as well – neither is quite as crunchily thought-provoking as Frankie, but both are seriously good along with the heavy dose of funny.

    Almost every one of the quotes you have here were passages I marked too. But I’m not sure I see the book as being as completely about feminism as you (pl) do, although I do agree that it’s an important issue. Frankie is such a unique character that she sometimes seemed to have to make her own way in a manner that wouldn’t work for the most feminist-empowered other women. Or perhaps it’s that there are so many varieties of feminist thought anyway, really – I was thinking about the fact that viewed from another perspective, Trish was making an independent choice of how she wanted to spend her time, without worrying about how it would look to choose to sit in her living room instead of being out on the beach with the guys. And what’s more feminist than being free to choose what you want to do for yourself rather than following the expectations of others?

    But I’d better stop before this comment gets too horribly long! It’s that kind of book, though, isn’t it? Lovely getting a chance to look in on your discussion of it.


  2. You’re right, Lady-S, we did kind of focus on the feminism, when there are definitely other issues going on that we could have given more attention to: class divisions based on family money/social standing, social activism, that whole thing about the benefactor who owned the canned vegetable company, so they only served canned stuff at the salad bar, etc. But dang, we’d already gone on so long…

    I like your point about the variety of feminist thought represented by Trish. There’s also Frankie’s sister Zada, who’s doing her own thing off at Berkeley, too.

    Thanks for the book rec’s, and thanks for chiming in!


  3. I hear ya, Lady S. As someone who opted to do the stay-at-home-mom route (I still hate that phrase, since it makes it sound like I’m tethered to the kitchen table, but what else are you gonna call it?), I certainly understand that feminism should be about doing what you need to do for yourself and not so much following the expectations of others (I think some people think stay-at-home moms can’t be feminists — to which I say PSHAW! just as it can be argued that Trish can be a feminist, too.)

    Anyway, I’m so glad you spoke up and joined in the discussion. And I echo Eisha’s thanks for the book recs!


  4. P.S. I like the phrase “crunchily thought-provoking.”


  5. Okay, girlies, I read about a quarter of the way into your review, and had to stop. I’m GOING TO read this, and then get back to you.

    Y’know, our girl e. lockhart is BRILLIANT and though it may not seem so with the bright pink and silly covers of her books, at heart they’re serious business about choices and the politics of teen romantic relationships. I haven’t read Dramarama yet, but the others have all been sort of “fly on the wall” (in one case, literally), stepped back observations about, “Huh. Boys do that. And girls do that in response. Does that makes sense? What would make us happier than the knee-jerk things we do? Hm.” Plot and characterization are woven in tightly around it and propel you along, but yeah, there’s a lot of Feminism 101 there, and I think it’s AWESOME. I aspire to write things as… important.

    Yay for your review! I can’t WAIT to load up on books when I’m in the U.S.!!


  6. Good to know, TadMack. I’m really curious about the literal “fly on the wall.” And yeah, I’ll be anxious to get your take on Frankie after you’ve had a chance to read it too.


  7. [...] The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart (seven impossible things before bre… (tags: e.lockhart the.disreputable.history.of.frankie.landau-banks young.adult Ø) [...]


  8. I was delighted to have stumbled onto this review. I read the book a few months ago and just loved it. It is interesting, as a life-long feminist (literally — I was raised on books like “Girls Can Be Anything” and “Captain Jane” and “Firegirl”), that I didn’t so much see it as a book about feminism, as I saw it as a book about power.

    I was struck all the way through how what it was really about was gender and class, and how that affects the power you have and the way you view power. Matthew, due to his gender and socioeconomic class, had tons of power, but he never even thought about it. He was so frustratingly un-self-aware.

    I went on to try a few other books by E. Lockhart. I really didn’t like the Boyfriend List, but I loved the Fly on the Wall, and highly recommend it.


  9. You’re right, Kiri. There’s SO much in this book. It’s powerful stuff, huh? And, best of all, a great story on top of it all. I think our co-review could have been way longer than it was, what with all the juicy good stuff (the “crunchily thought-provoking” stuff, as Lady-S put it) in it.

    And, yes, Matthew was pretty clueless about his standing in life and privileges, huh?


  10. Sorry folks, but I completely missed where Frankie plans to “take down” the old boy system of privilege in place at Alabaster. FLB’s goals are 2-fold: She craves respect from these wealthy, white boys and she wants to enjoy their level of privilege and camaraderie. She may cleverly manipulate them for her own ends, but it is never her intent to expose the Bassets. She also never considers sharing her newfound power with her female peers. She is dismissive of Zada’s suggestion that she create a space outside of the confines of the patriarchy and also of her roommate’s choice to explore traditionally feminine arts. In fact, Frankie is generally dismissive of all things female, a notion the narrator reinforces by consistently pointing out how Frankie isn’t like “other girls.”


  11. Fair points, Danielle. Maybe “infiltrate” would have been a better choice of words than “take down” – although she shows a fair bit of disgust for the old boy system as it manifests in her father’s generation.


  12. I think Danielle is absolutely right, but for me that’s another mark of the genius of this book.

    Much like the less than straightforward or sanguine ending, Frankie’s willful myopia on this issue struck me as painfully realistic. (So realistic, in fact, that it didn’t strike me at all until a friend pointed it out to me — because, like Frankie, and having been in Frankie’s place in the real world, I was too smitten with the Bassets to imagine another viable option.)

    Of course she doesn’t want to destroy them. Despite her misgivings, she’s utterly infatuated with them. For me, that’s the fundamental conflict at the heart of the book — it would be so much easier if, like her sister, she just wanted to reject the patrimony and embrace her ‘sisters,’ etc etc…but she doesn’t.

    Frankie’s not some kind of feminist superhero (although apparently E Lockhart is) — and not even she can think herself out of every box.


  13. I adore this book. Really, truly. It’s smart. I throughly enjoyed the book (themes), the story (plausible), and the characters (all realistic, and a protagonist that’s thoughtful to boot). As you stated, Frankie wants to be equal. She’s not after power. She doesn’t want money or control over others. Hers is a quiet riot, and I cheered her every step/word/impea.


  14. Like you, I enjoyed DISREPUTABLE. Like you, I wonder what message Lockhart is sending, though. Frankie’s rebellion is funny and surprisingly deep–too deep for the guys she was really targeting to get it–which she already knew or should have known.

    Maybe it’s my shallowness, but I generally prefer books with stories where rebels either prevail or at least have a plan that could, if the stars aligned, lead them to victory. Frankie’s obviously doomed rebellion was disturbing, thought-provoking, and, for me, frustrating.

    Here’s my detailed review: http://www.booksforabuck.com/rompages/rom_2008/disreputable_history_frankie.html


  15. Interesting review, Rob. I think what you say about the scheme being doomed from the start kind of ties in with the ambiguous ending – it darkens the story considerably.

    Lttle Willow, bless you for appropriately working the phrase “quiet riot” into your comment.

    robin, whoa, a real-life Frankie! And true, she certainly didn’t come off as a superhero at the end, despite the Superman t-shirt.


  16. I was pretty blown away by this book, as well. It was mentioned before that Frankie herself is dismissive of anything feminine, which I think is a pretty important part of the book and what it says about feminism. Not only does she see Trish’s decision to make crumbles instead of playing on the beach as something detrimental, but she ignores Trish in the same way Matthew ignores her. Frankie gets annoyed that Matthew will not tell her about the Bassetts, and calls her “harmless”, but she refuses to tell Trish about what she’s doing, and to the end, considers Trish to be oblivious when she so clearly is not. Frankie gets annoyed when Matthew fails to realized the statement being made by putting the Guppy in the old and obsolete pool, but she hardly notices when Trish makes the connection and tries to discuss it with other girls. This is a flaw in Frankie, and I think it makes her an absolutely brilliantly developed character–she’s an excellent feminist role model for teen girls, but she also serves as an example of a girl who will ignore the importance of other girls to what she’s trying to accomplish. Interesting stuff.


  17. Ooh, Maddy. Good.

    You all are making me wanna read the book again. The other books in my to-be-read pile are protesting this, but the urge is strong. I love it when people come and discuss crunchy, juicy-good books with us. Thank you, all.


  18. I’m very meh on the cover, too. But that won’t stop me from reading it. :-)


  19. I actually like the cover. I guess I asked Eisha about it but never commented myself. I think if Frankie were pictured — some book cover model from some place — I’d be somehow disappointed.


  20. [...] Over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Jules & Eisha give us a delightful back-and-forth about E. Lockhart’s YA novel The Frankie Mystique. [...]


  21. [...] Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast | Teens Read Too | Teen Reads | Becky’s Book Reviews | The Virtual Loft |  The Reading Zone | [...]


  22. [...] Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast | Teens Read Too | Teen Reads | Becky’s Book Reviews | The Virtual Loft | The Reading Zone | [...]


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