Review of “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks” by E. Lockhart

A quick glance at this young adult book might give you the misleading idea that this is just a story about a cute high school sophomore, Frankie (Francis), who manages to snag a “gorgeous” senior boyfriend, Matthew, thereby acquiring status and happiness all at once. But this simple premise belies a more complex reality. Frankie may be quite physically appealing, but she wants to be appreciated for more than just her looks. She chafes at being considered simple and sweet and inconsequential.

In the summer prior to her sophomore year, a lot happens to Frankie. Most significantly, she “fills out” and becomes attractive to the opposite sex. At the beach, she flirts with a boy who seems to like her. When school starts, she finds out he is one of the most popular boys, known as Alpha (for “top dog”), but he pretends not to know her. His best friend, however, the previously mentioned gorgeous Matthew, notices the newly nubile Frankie right away and becomes her boyfriend. Alpha isn’t helpful; he might be jealous, but more importantly, he sees Frankie as a threat to the hold he has over his group of male friends.

Frankie sets out to prove to them that she can be a valuable member of the crowd; that she is more than just ornamentation. But she runs up against barriers she never expected. One surprising discovery is that the guys don’t really care if Frankie has a bunch of ideas that are more clever than anything they can make up; when the guys get together, they are more interested in male bonding for itself than the nature of what they actually do together. It’s a barrier she simply can’t pierce.

I found this so intriguing. It reminded me of reading about African-American Geoffrey Canada, the superstar education innovator whose story I reviewed a while ago. He talks about how much time he spends in the corporate world surrounded by very wealthy whites, with whom he is totally comfortable. And yet, the level of comfort, feeling of bondedness, and ease of coexistence it is nothing like what he feels when he gets back with his neighborhood “homeboys.” When I read Canada’s story, I felt a sort of theoretical wistful longing – a realization that here was a group to which a newcomer could never belong. I saw that same longing (albeit not theoretical) in Frankie, knowing she can never really be “one of the boys.”

It also reminds me of what happens in the movie “Grease.” There, the Olivia Newton-John character meets the John Travolta character during the summer, and they have a romance. When they get back in school, however, Travolta has to act “cool” and Newton-John doesn’t cut the mustard. But after she gives up who she is and transforms herself into a more socially acceptable sexpot, everything turns out happy.

Frankie doesn’t want to “win” by being a sexy babe. She wants to win by virtue of her heart, brains and courage. But she would be better off hanging out with the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Lion and heading off to Oz, where only magic can break through the reality of socialization and perhaps ingrained species adaptational behavior.

It is not only Frankie’s family who still thinks of her as “Bunny Rabbit.” And it is not only in fiction that stereotypical roles linger. The popularity of “Grease” is a case in point. (In 1979 “Grease” took over the record as the longest-running show in the history of Broadway and the hit film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John proved to be the highest-grossing movie musical ever.) “Pretty Woman” (sometimes known as “Pretty Sexist”) in which the prostitute with heart of gold is transformed into Cinderella and rescued by a handsome corporate prince, grossed an estimated box office total of over US$450 million as of March, 2010, making it the most successful romantic comedy of all time.

But some women, like young Frankie, do believe there is more to life than being a “bunny rabbit.” Frankie was envious of what Matthew and his male friends had that was conferred on them not by inner worth, but simply by gender and class:

“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 needs to figure out what she really wants. And she has to decide what to do when she finally figures that why Matthew likes her is that she is “a smaller, younger person that he was, with no social power.” If it is only by acting a role that she can get the respect and freedom she craves, but it’s not the kind of respect to which she aspires, what are her choices? And how will her decision affect how she feels about herself and her future?

Evaluation: Excellent book for young girls (and all the older girls who used to be young girls). Lots and lots of material for discussion.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Hyperion, 2008


National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature (2008)
Michael L. Printz Award Nominee (2009)
South Carolina Book Award Nominee for Young Adult Book Award (2011)
Florida Teens Read Nominee (2009)
Iowa Teen Award Nominee (2011)
Abraham Lincoln Award Nominee (2011)

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24 Responses to Review of “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks” by E. Lockhart

  1. Nicole says:

    I was browsing on Friday and trying to be good, I passed on getting a copy of this one. Regret! I didn’t read too deeply because I have a feeling that I will get this one soon, but I loved the other tie-ins and some of the quotes.

  2. Sandy says:

    This sounds like a book I could really get behind. I’ve watched Grease a thousand times (and was mercilessly teased because of my name) but it always bothered me that Sandy had to change to get her man. The one thing I will say about the American Girl dolls is that if I remember correctly (my daughter had a couple of them) their stories and characters are very strong and seemed to send the right message. I’m loving the sound of this book.

  3. amymckie says:

    This sounds like a really great book. Definitely one I’ll be trying to get my hands on at some point… I wonder if my library has it 😀

  4. Trisha says:

    This sounds like a thought-provoking read which always gets me excited. Thanks for the suggestion.

  5. Julie P. says:

    Wow! Your review is terrific and definitely makes me curious to check out this book! I love the American Girl tie-in!

  6. Margot says:

    The subject matter of this post is very dear to my heart and that of my two, now grown, daughters. They were so enamored with Grease that they watched (with Sandy?) a thousand times. The only good thing that came from that was that it allowed me a chance to ask questions and get a discussion going. Asking, “What do you think?” was the only way with my teenage girls. As they matured, they began to see the high school social scene the way Frankie does in the book. I wish I’d had this book back then.

  7. Care says:

    Must. Get. This. Book. Thank you – fabulous wonderful amazing review.

  8. Emily says:

    Your description of the ease and security that the popular boys have due to their popularity puts me in mind of Robert Sapolksy‘s research on the physical effects of stress – he works with baboons in Kenya, and apparently the baboons higher up on the social hierarchy (who are able to bully more baboons and have fewer baboons who are permitted to bully them) live longer & suffer from far fewer stress-induced diseases, despite the fact that they sometimes have to defend their high position from others who want to unseat them. So true that being born into a position of privilege allows greater relaxation & security.

  9. zibilee says:

    I have read quite a few good reviews of this book, and reading your post really intrigues me all the more about it. It would probably be a great book to read and discuss with my daughter, who just turned 14. Thanks for the great and very thoughtful post. I will be looking into this book for our summer reading.

  10. Aarti says:

    What a great review and analysis! I always feel that Sandy from Grease gets a bit of a bad rap- after all, John Travolta (whose character’s name I have forgotten) became all preppy for HER, too. But I like that this book tackles that stuff. Awesome 🙂

  11. bermudaonion says:

    I’ve had this one on my wish list for a while. Your fantastic review just confirmed that it belongs there.

  12. Jenny says:

    Now I have “You’re the One that I Want” stuck in my head. :p

    This sounds like such a good book! Between your review and Nymeth’s recently, I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

  13. Brilliant post!! And I completely agree — it always bothered me that the “moral” of the story of Grease was to dress skimpily and show off your body, and NOW you’re accepted! Now you’re cool! I was never a fan of that ending, and I will always state my opinion about it because it relegated the character of Sandy to nothing more than another T & A moment…sigh.

  14. Staci says:

    Wow…you write a research paper quality review every time woman..I’m so impressed and walk away with a lot of insight. I really loved this book when I read it last year. Frankie is quite the girl in my opinion!

  15. Alyce says:

    It sounds like a deep topic for a YA book. You raise some good issues about things that can become just part of the everyday background and so not thought of – like how the gender differences show up – girls being anxious, lacking confidence and worrying, guys being confident and secure. Those attitudes affect so much of our outlook on life.

  16. sagustocox says:

    Wow, what a great book. Looks like this one had your synapses firing…look at all those connections you made by reading this YA book. And who says that YA can’t be deep. Thanks so much for your review. I now have to find my copy of this book, which I picked up at Borders for like $2!

  17. I hadn’t heard of this book until your review … your well-written and heavily supported review!

    Sounds like a great pick for a mother-daughter (tween/teen) book group.

    And, like Jenny, I have songs from Grease stuck in my head now.

  18. Jenners says:

    This is the kind of book that simultaneously makes me glad I don’t have a daughter and makes me ache to have a daughter, if that makes sense.

    There is nothing more frustrating that not being able to be seen as your true self despite all your best efforts and gifts.

    What a review!

  19. Nymeth says:

    Haha, I did not know the alternative title for Pretty Woman – very apt 😉

    I LOVE how you included so many examples of this kind of thing happening out there in the world or being present in/reinforced by other works of fiction. I’ve seen people say that this book “exaggerates” or “oversimplifies” things, and I can only think if only..

  20. stacybuckeye says:

    Okay, I get it, but can I still love Grease?

  21. Sounds like a deep book. I hadn’t planned on reading it, but you’ve made me think twice about that.

  22. Trish says:

    Been meaning to comment on this post for way too long as well. I just need to mark my entire Google Reader as read and start over! 🙂

    I read this one last year and was surprised at the hidden depth of the book. I loved Frankie and I loved how she stood up for herself and didn’t allow herself to be boxed in. I also loved the wordplay in the book!

  23. Kat says:

    Sorry to say that I did not enjoy the book. Your review makes it sound good, though!

  24. Pingback: Review: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart | Bart's Bookshelf

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