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September 18, 2008

Reading Update

I can't believe I haven't reviewed this yet!

I just read E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, I think at Gwenda's recommendation. Despite my absolute moratorium on "The BLANKITY BLANK OF NAME-ITY NAME NAME" titles, I have to say ... Wow. This is a book about a wealthy-ish (not super wealthy) girl at a top board school discovering sexism and acting out. And it's amazing.

When I first started the book, although I enjoyed it, I was disgusted by the Gossip-Girl-esque fascination with the unattainably rich and the assumption that what concerns the rich will somehow be universal to us all. This girl doesn't really have any problems, and her bratty distress at being treated like a child (at all of 15 years of age) by adults and older kids is a really extended boo-fuckin'-hoo moment. Plus, she suddenly grows good looks and becomes arm candy for her crush, the most popular boy in school. So what's the problem?

But then, as I read on, the real sexism that even privileged women are subjected to started leaking in to the scenario. Unlike what this book would be in the hands of a lesser writer, Lockhart doesn't turn Frankie into a sudden, total, feminist heroine. Frankie doesn't quite get what's happening to her when her new boyfriend starts ignoring and excluding her in favor of his guy friends. She doesn't really understand why it upsets her, especially when she looks around her and sees all kinds of examples of relationships where it either isn't happening, or where the girl lets it happen. What's never mentioned here is that this is exactly what happened in her (divorced) parents' marriage and her mother set her the best example of how to handle it: leave.

So Frankie starts acting out in a typically (for women of this class) passive agressive way. That is to say, she takes over, by email, the all-male secret society her boyfriend nominally runs, pretending to be another boy, the other secret-society "king" (who gets so much credit, he doesn't dare out her), and ordering the rest of them to commit culture-jamming pranks the quality of which the society hasn't committed since its inception. In the process, she starts to recognize qualities in herself that she simultaneously likes and dislikes. She is clearly an alpha (like the boy she's impersonating, whose actual nickname is "Alpha"), with all the concomitant desire for attention and control, and also the ability to think for herself and to synthesize others' opinions. She also has creativity, a sense of humor, physical courage, and a profound, motivating, egotistical irritability.

It's entirely to Lockhart's credit that she never comes down on the side of "good? or evil?" with regard to Frankie's alphaness. It's neither and both. It's a force of human life; a social force, and ultimately, that's what Lockhart is examining in this book: power. I know, it sounds crazy that a  boarding school book about a prankster girl could be the best novel in this election cycle about sources of socio-political power and effective dissent. But that's exactly what this is.

Lockhart doesn't fail to make those connections increasingly througout this book. She shows us Frankie thinking through the implications of all these ridiculous high school hijinks. She notices that more than one former member of this secret society has become President. Frankie's father, also a former member, is shown in his circle of high-powered professionals, who are not only at the top of their professions, but also at the top of mainstream society. The silliness of these boys' games is there, but their importance to society as a whole can't be gainsaid. This is truth that exists in the real world: a three-month-long high school rivalry or friendship will have more effect on world politics than decades of community activism. We all know this, but we like to let ourselves forget. And by the end, Frankie can say to herself that, as much as she is excluded, she still needs to be near to the sources of power so that she can express her alpha personality in the ways she wants to later in life.

Reading this book has helped me to understand Hillary Clinton better than a thousand magazine articles and pundits' pootles. Of course, Frankie is idealized and likeable as a teenager, but I can easily see her turning into another Hillary: compromised, hard-edged, cynical, and still a little idealistic. This book is clear-eyed, but essentially optimistic, with the understanding that, beyond high school, our society has many mansions.

The book is, in more than one way, the anti-Chocolate War, looking at a privileged, attractive girl's secret fight against a prankster secret society, as opposed to the dark and pessimistic look at an underprivileged, unattractive boy's public fight against a bullying secret society. The two books should be read together, really. In school. And then A Little Commonwealth, The Education of Henry Adams, and The Second Sex should be read.

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