E. Lockhart: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (2008), We Were Liars (2014), Genuine Fraud (2017)
When Jane Austen created Emma Woodhouse, she noted that here was a character “whom no one but myself will much like”. Austen must have enjoyed making Emma a shallow and spoiled young woman who must learn a difficult lesson about herself, yet the mostly positive reviews, including one by Sir Walter Scott, probably surprised her. E. Lockhart, who started her publishing career with picture books published under her real name, Emily Jenkins, has given us three novels that feature young women dealing with the hand dealt them by family and fate. As with Emma, we may find ourselves not liking any of them, for each is a “bad girl,” and thus the theme for today’s post.
Frankie Landau-Banks, the eponymous heroine of the 2008 novel hereinafter referred to as TDHOFL-B, attends a private school that has recently gone co-ed. In its all-male past, the students created a secret club, the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds (thus the dog’s image in the wax seal on the cover), a group devoted to school-wide pranks. Frankie learns about the stubbornly-all-male club through her boyfriend and yearns to be a member.
Impossible of course. We all know too well that, as the number of undiversified domains shrinks, members protect the surviving groups with ardor and an “almost fanatical devotion to” their rituals.¹ Frankie, no longer satisfied to sit admiringly and girlishly on the sidelines, secretly becomes the mastermind behind the Basset Hounds’ pranks. These grow more and more intricate, the Hounds more and more excited to learn what the next one will be, and Frankie more and more frustrated that the Hounds believe only a male could be so clever and devious.
The outcome of all this — Frankie’s discovery and punishment — doesn’t lessen the impact of Lockhart’s story. How does a woman make herself heard and seen in a man’s world? How much anger and frustration lie behind every girl’s effort to excel in a sport or science? How many women, dismissed by male peers, find themselves resorting to underhanded methods in order to play a role in larger events?
On to Cadence Eastman, the heroine of We Were Liars. It’s summer, when the entire family — grandfather, three daughters, and various grandchildren and dogs — gather at their private island. Cadence is recovering from an illness that has left her with amnesia hiding events from the most recent several months. Helping her are two cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and Gat, the son of one aunt’s partner. As Cadence processes her gradually returning memories, her mother and aunts deal with their fragile father who must make decisions about their island property after the death of his wife.
Grandfather + three daughters + property disputes — we’re in for a retelling of King Lear, but this time with a grandchild as the protagonist.² The novel has funny moments, but it is not a comedy. Arguments over who should be living in which of the four houses (Lockhart’s publisher has provided us with a map of the island as well as a family tree, both helpful in keeping the three families straight) tinge the adult conversations. The four oldest children (Cadence, Johnny, Mirren and Gat) do their best to escape the bickering. Their decision about how to end the arguments brings about the horrifying events that led to Cadence’s amnesia. Unlike TDHOFL-B, in Liars there is no feminist angle of frustrated intelligence in a person seen only as ornamental. Instead, Lockhart gives us a group of teens disgusted by the bitter anger the adults closest to them can’t hide — the three sisters’ envy and resentment building over many summers spent on the island. We can admire Frankie’s display of intelligence in the pranks she plans — harmless, although often expensive to put right — but when Cadence, with the other Liars, makes her move, we know things will not turn out well.
And then there’s Jule, the protagonist of Genuine Fraud, and the baddest girl of Lockhart’s oeuvre. The novel’s epigraph, “For anyone who has been taught that good equals small and silent, here is my heart with all its ugly tangles and splendid fury,” gives a hint. When we figure out that Lockhart has thrown the story’s structure on its head and is telling it backwards, we have to reverse the epigraph’s equation: small and silent doesn’t equal good.
At the start, Jule is on the run, and we’re relieved to find she has ducked the agent who is hunting her. We don’t know yet why she’s in trouble, but our sympathy goes out to her — it’s clear from the beginning that she is smart, that she has overcome a deprived and abused childhood, that she’ll never forgive the way older males have treated her, and that she is unwilling to take less than what she believes she deserves.
With Fraud, we’re back once again in the world of feminist anger, but quite different from what we saw in TDHOFL-B. Frankie is fifteen, with a wealthy family and all the privilege that entails, and a boyfriend who, although unwilling to accept her intelligence, at least treats her kindly. In contrast, nothing for the older Jule comes easy, and she finds inspiration in the fictional struggles of Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist (and also in Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde). Most of Jule’s anger is directed at men (according to her, “Men still walk around like the USA is a big cake store and all the cake is for them.”), but women get their share of that anger.
When I started this novel, a statement from Lockhart that I now can’t quote accurately ran through my head: something about expecting readers to toss the book across the room before finishing it (a modern version of Austen’s heroine whom no one would much like?). There were points when I did want to heave Fraud aside, but I didn’t. At the end, after all of Jule’s masks were torn off, I couldn’t help admiring how Lockhart had vested me in Jule’s fate. Described as a “suspense novel” and “thriller”, Fraud fulfills its promises, and leaves me wondering if Jule is the endgame of the #MeToo moment. If so, not just men will have much to fear.
¹Quotation is from Monty Python’s skit, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”. See it on YouTube here.
²In Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991) Larry (Lear) is a farmer falling into senility, told from the viewpoint of Ginny (Goneril), his troubled daughter. Her sister Caroline (Cordelia) is a greedy lawyer.