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.

A book & a movie: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

It’s the classic tug-of-war: Book or Movie?

In the case of To All the Boys I’ve Love Before, why not enjoy both? That’s what I did this past week!

I watched the Netflix movie last weekend. Here’s the synopsis (via IMDb):

When her secret love letters somehow get mailed to each of her five crushes, Lara Jean finds her quiet high school existence turned upside down.

Okay, that doesn’t really tell us all that much.

The movie is super adorable. 16-year-old Lara Jean, a high school junior, lives at home with her widowed dad and her two sisters — but older sister Margot’s departure for college in Scotland throws the normal family routines out of whack. Lara Jean is missing Margot… and then somehow, her old love letters to five different crushes from her past end up in the boys’ hands, and things get rom-com cute and chaotic.

But what about the book? After watching the movie, I decided I needed to read the book — ya know, just for comparison’s sake. The book, by Jenny Han, is sweet and quirky (kind of like Lara Jean!). Here’s the book synopsis, from Goodreads:

What if all the crushes you ever had found out how you felt about them… all at once?

Sixteen-year-old Lara Jean Song keeps her love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her. They aren’t love letters that anyone else wrote for her; these are ones she’s written. One for every boy she’s ever loved—five in all. When she writes, she pours out her heart and soul and says all the things she would never say in real life, because her letters are for her eyes only. Until the day her secret letters are mailed, and suddenly, Lara Jean’s love life goes from imaginary to out of control.

In both versions, the main boys on Lara Jean’s very confused mind are Josh, the boy next door and Margot’s ex-boyfriend, and Peter Kavinsky, the super popular guy who once kissed Lara Jean back in middle school. Josh is blown away by Lara Jean’s letter confessing feelings for him, and Peter is trying to deal with a break-up from his long-term girlfriend, so Lara Jean and Peter end up as fake boyfriend and girlfriend, just to get everyone off their backs. Yes, the fake relationship plot has been around for a while, but To All the Boys manages to keep it fresh and fun.

The movie version is a great way to enjoy the full story without a whole lot of time invested, and the cast is pretty terrific. I have a definite weakness for John Corbett, who plays the dad (which gives you a good idea of my demographic, btw), but I appreciated the young’uns who make up the teen characters’ part of the cast.

I was a little confused, watching the movie, by the ethnicity of the sisters. According to the book, Lara Jean and her sisters are biracial, with a Korean mom and a white dad. The TV sisters appear to be from different ethnic backgrounds, which I kept thinking the movie might explain (are they adopted? I hadn’t read the book yet when I watched it). To complicate matters further, according to IMDb, the actress playing Lara Jean is of Vietnamese descent, and the actress playing Margot is of Chinese descent. No info on the younger sister (who, based just on looks, doesn’t appear to be Asian), but I thought it was odd casting to pick three girls who look nothing alike and then just ignore their diverse backgrounds. Sorry, I’m not trying to be offensive here, but not being familiar with the story beforehand, I was distracted by how distinctly un-related the sisters looked, and it took me a while to realize that the movie was just going to leave it all unacknowledged. Weird to get hung up on that, I know, but there it is.

The movie advances the plot a bit further than the book — the book leaves the ending on an open note. We know (and Lara Jean finally knows) how she feels, but not what the outcome will be. The movie has a suitably romantic and adorable ending… but since the book is the first in a trilogy, I assume we’ll get there in book #2.

Of course, I’m now a little worried about how there can be two more books’ worth of story left to tell, because the movie ending was pretty perfect and swoony. Now I’m anxious about what comes after that happy ending, and what direction books 2 and 3 might take the characters in.

So, which did I like more — book or movie? Hard to say! I’m glad I watched the movie first (which is definitely unusual for me). It strikes all the right notes, condensing teen worry, flirtation, hard family issues, mean girls, fitting in, first crushes, and the rush of first love, into a (less than) two hour experience that feels fun, fresh, and totally satisfying. If you need a quick mood boost, this is perfect (maybe with a mug of hot cocoa and some delicious cookies to go with). I liked the book a lot, especially the deeper look into the relationships between Margot, Lara Jean, and younger sister Kitty, and I’m glad I read it — but even if I hadn’t, the movie hits all the right beats and feels complete in and of itself.

So yeah, I say do both! Watch the movie, read the book… and as for me, I’m already moving on to book #2, PS I Still Love You… hoping there’s plenty more quirky romance and sisterly shenanigans in store!

A book and a movie: Lady Susan

I can’t say that I’m a true Janeite — but I guess you could call me an amateur Austenphile. I love Jane Austen’s novels, but not to the point of obsession. I mean, I don’t go to Jane conventions, and I tend not to be interested in the (seemingly) thousands of continuations of the stories written by contemporary authors.

I have, however, read the six novels and listened to the audiobooks. Read all of the novels more than once or twice, in fact. And love the movie adaptations, and love discovering new versions that I’ve never seen before. I recently went on an Emma-watching binge after my book group finished a group read, and even more recently, watched the Keira Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice back-to-back with Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (awesomely fun).

I had not read any of Austen’s other writings… until now!

Lady SusanOver the past couple of days, I finally read Lady Susan — and loved it! For those not familiar with it, Lady Susan is a shorter work — a mere 80 pages! It’s Jane Austen’s first written work, although it was not published during her lifetime. Told in letters between the main characters, Lady Susan is quite different from Austen’s well-beloved novels.

From Goodreads:

Beautiful, flirtatious, and recently widowed, Lady Susan Vernon seeks an advantageous second marriage for herself, while attempting to push her daughter into a dismal match. A magnificently crafted novel of Regency manners and mores that will delight Austen enthusiasts with its wit and elegant expression... Lady Susan is a selfish, attractive woman, who tries to trap the best possible husband while maintaining a relationship with a married man. She subverts all the standards of the romantic novel: she has an active role, she’s not only beautiful but intelligent and witty, and her suitors are significantly younger than she is.

I’m delighted to have finally read Lady Susan. It’s so smart and funny and unexpected! Lady Susan is older and more wicked than the typical Austen heroine — conniving, manipulative, and scandalous, she looks out for herself to get what she wants. She toes the line of respectability and is a master when it comes to the cover-up, but her true nature and intentions are expressed loudly and clearly in the letters she writes to her closest friend, an accomplice in Lady Susan’s affairs and indiscretions.

I should admit, though, that I’d never had more than a passing acquaintance with the title of this novella and knew nothing about the actual content until the movie Love & Friendship was released earlier this year.

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Love & Friendship is a glorious movie, graced with an incredibly talented cast. Kate Beckinsale absolutely sells every nuance of Lady Susan’s manners and character, and Chloe Sevigny is pitch-perfect as Mrs. Johnson, Lady Susan’s close friend. I love that the movie has Mrs Johnson as an American living in England, so that Chloe Sevigny’s own accent fits the role — which helps emphasize that her character is an outsider, not quite a part of established society, and possibly even a little uncouth, a perfect confidante for Lady Susan.

Check out the trailer… and tell me it doesn’t look amazing!

I saw the movie with a friend, thought it was hilarious, and now having read the book, can’t wait to watch the movie version again.

Lady Susan v2Usually I’m a stickler for reading the book first — but I have to admit that in this case, having seen the movie helped me get into the story immediately. I’d actually picked up the e-book version of Lady Susan several months ago, but found the letters hard to get into without any advance knowledge of the characters or plot. On top of which, the e-book was horribly formatted, to the point where it was basically unreadable.

BTW, the purple-covered edition is the version of Lady Susan which I’ve just finished, courtesy of my local library. It’s part of a series of novellas published by Melville House. The list of other novellas in the series appears at the back of the book, and includes some titles that I need! It’s such an adorable little edition.

Summing it all up — I really adored both reading Lady Susan and watching Love & Friendship, and highly recommend both!

Need further convincing? I leave you with a selection of quotes from the book:

My dear Sister,

I congratulate you and Mr. Vernon on being about to receive into your family the most accomplished coquette in England.

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What a woman she must be! I long to see her, and shall certainly accept your kind invitation, that I may form some idea of those bewitching powers which can do so much — engaging at the same time and in the same house the affections of two men who were neither of them at liberty to bestow them — and all this without the charm of youth.

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Some mothers would have insisted on their daughter’s accepting so great an offer on the first overture, but I could not answer it to myself to force Frederica into a marriage from which her heart revolted; and instead of adopting so harsh a measure merely propose to make it her own choice by rendering her thoroughly uncomfortable till she does accept him.

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I have never yet found that the advice of a sister could prevent a young man’s being in love if he chose it.