Book Review: Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Title: Plain Bad Heroines
Author: Emily M. Danforth
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: October 20, 2020
Length: 608 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The award-winning author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post makes her adult debut with this highly imaginative and original horror-comedy centered around a cursed New England boarding school for girls—a wickedly whimsical celebration of the art of storytelling, sapphic love, and the rebellious female spirit.

Our story begins in 1902, at The Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, the author of a scandalous bestselling memoir. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it The Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered with a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, The Brookhants School for Girls closes its doors forever—but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling way.

Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer, Merritt Emmons, publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” Gilded-Age institution. Her bestselling book inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled—or perhaps just grimly exploited—and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.

A story within a story within a story and featuring black-and-white period illustrations, Plain Bad Heroines is a devilishly haunting, modern masterwork of metafiction that manages to combine the ghostly sensibility of Sarah Waters with the dark imagination of Marisha Pessl and the sharp humor and incisive social commentary of Curtis Sittenfeld into one laugh-out-loud funny, spellbinding, and wonderfully luxuriant read.

This 600+ page book almost defies description, but I’ll give it a shot!

“I wish some one would write a book about a plan bad heroine so that I might feel in real sympathy with her.” – Mary MacLane

Plain Bad Heroines is a story-within-a-story book, with interlocking characters and motifs that center on the (supposedly) cursed and/or haunted grounds of the Brookhants School for Girls — an early 20th century institution for the education of society girls, located on a wooded estate in upper-crust Rhode Island.

Mary MacLane

In 1902, students Clara and Flo are inspired by the writings of (real-life) Mary MacLane and form a secret society, the Plain Bad Heroines, to celebrate her work and her life. Clara and Flo are in love, but after a disastrous trip home and a ride back to school with her judgmental cousin, Clara storms off into the woods to meet up with Flo, only for both girls to meet a ghastly end by being attacked by swarms of yellow jackets.

In our own timeline, the events from 1902 gain new notoriety after Merritt Emmons publishes The Happenings at Brookhants at the age of sixteen. Now years later, the book is being made into a film by an edgy director, with superstar “celesbian” Harper Harper committed to star as Flo. Merritt is on board as a producer, and she’s not pleased when Audrey Wood, a B-list actor who bombed her audition in a major way, is cast as Clara.

As the production cast and crew settle in to film on location at Brookhants, weird things start to happen, and there’s much more going on than can be easily explained. Is the place truly haunted? Or is this Hollywood manipulation at its most devious?

The plot weaves backward and forward in time, cutting between the modern-day movie storyline and the complicated relationships between Harper, Merritt, and Audrey, and the timeline that includes the aftermath of Clara and Flo’s deaths and the impact on Libbie, the school headmistress, and her lover, Alex (Alexandra).

There’s so much more to both pieces of the story than is readily apparent, and the author carefully layers on more and more hints and explanations, constantly deepening the story and shifting its direction and meaning.

Plain Bad Heroines is proudly, unabashedly queer, and its (plain, bad) heroines make no attempts to follow anyone’s rules but their own. They love as they please, and take inspiration from Mary MacLane’s own bold pronouncements when they need courage. The relationships are intricate and shifting, in both timelines, and the character refuse to be cookie-cutter types — author Emily M. Danforth does an amazing job of managing such a large cast and making sure each individual character has a life and personality of her own.

This book is BIG, and it takes concentration, but I could not stop reading once I started. The writing style is clever and filled with footnotes and commentary that are snarky and funny and informative. There are also dire and tragic happenings — and this IS a horror story too, with plenty of creepy, spine-tingling moments.

Black and white illustrations throughout the book add to the overall mood and make reading this book feel like an experience.

Yellow jackets are scary anyway, but now, having read Plain Bad Heroines, I’m pretty sure I’m terrified of them. Read the book — you’ll see what I mean.

I really only have two complaints about Plain Bad Heroines, and the first is not with the story itself but with the layout. Whoever picked the typeface for this book should have paid more attention to the asterisks that lead to the footnotes — I almost never saw them (they’re tiny), and had to constantly go back and search the page to see where the footnotes connect to.

My second complaint is a larger one, which is that I wasn’t completely satisfied with the ending. It leaves a bunch of unanswered questions, and I’m a little frustrated that certain elements didn’t get more clarity and resolution.

Still, this is overall a marvelous and unique book, and I laughed and shivered my way through it. The final scene takes place at the Cannes Festival premiere of The Happenings at Brookhants, and all I could think was, damn! I wish this was a real movie, because it would be fascinating to see how it all worked out.

Plain Bad Heroines is a terrific read. Don’t miss it!

To learn more about the real Mary MacLane, visit The Mary MacLane Project.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

  1. I added this to my TBR list a while ago when I first saw an edition with a bright yellow cover that caught my eye and made me want to know more. Yours is the first review I’ve seen and it’s definitely added to my ‘I want to read this book’ thoughts. So many things about it appeal to me – the story within a story, the horror, the two timelines. Great review, glad you enjoyed the book.

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