I’ve been going through a huge E. Lockhart phase. She is a Young Adult (YA) writer who recently released the wildly popular We Were Liars. I devoured that book, I bought a copy for my niece for her birthday, and I started on a mission to read everything Lockhart has written.
This is what brought me to The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. I adore this book. I love the word “disreputable,” I love the protagonist, Frankie, a teenaged girl at a prep school in New England. I love how Frankie takes it upon herself to infiltrate the school’s all male secret society. She’s bold and determined and clever but also sometimes insecure and maybe also doing it all to impress a boy.
What was most interesting to me is that where we ultimately leave Frankie is in a place that I’m still thinking about constantly, with the question of what we collectively do with a girl like her. Because Frankie’s weird. The book is weird and, like everything else by Lockhart, nuanced. And, without giving anything away, we leave the book with Frankie just starting to sort out what all of this means. It’s a difficult place to end a story but it’s really interesting and really resonates.
And then I accidentally fell into a bunch of other YA books about teens at boarding schools.
The second one was Meg Wolitzer’s latest, Belzhar. I’d been looking forward to this one since I found out it existed. Belzhar is basically a YA take on and tribute to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. This is a magical realist look into another New England boarding school, this time one that specifically caters to teens dealing with mental illness. Wolitzer’s protagonist, Jam, was sent there by her parents on her therapist’s recommendation after losing the boy she loved.
OK, just a digression to talk about how the catalysts for both of these stories are girls trying to hold on to a boy. In general, this is a not uncommon YA trope and, in general, it makes me feel tired and bored and sometimes angry. I don’t even know if I have a way of explaining why I feel differently about Frankie and Jam – maybe it is the fact that all that these boys end up being, in the end, is a catalyst. Like, they’re actually not the most important part of the story or the most important thing about the girls.
Frankie ends up working to dismantle the entire boys’ club of her school’s secret society and Jam discovers a whole secret fantasy world. Their priorities shift radically and, I think, by the end of each book, both girls have broadened their ideas about what’s important and have started to demand that boys recognize them as actual people. Which I guess is the important shift for me: I think it’s fine to worry about boys, what breaks my heart is making boys the protagonist of your own story. Frankie and Jam become their own heroes and that is so, so cool to read.
Which brings me to Andrew Smith’s Winger, this time about a 14-year-old junior at a private boarding school in the Pacific Northwest told from the perspective of the 14-year-old boy in question, Ryan Dean West. This was Henrietta’s November book club suggestion and I wouldn’t have started it (and absolutely would not have finished it) were that not the case.
But what my book group was able to remind me of were some of the book’s charms (and the way Smith just nails the perspective choice). Ryan Dean writes and draws comics and we get to see some of the ones that he shares with his friends. Smith lets us see all of Ryan Dean. A lot of the narrative is affected and self-conscious (again, he’s a 14-year-old junior in high school) but the comics let us see him on another level. The style changes throughout the book and it’s really just an excellent representation of character growth.
I guess what, again, made me feel exhausted about reading this book was that it felt like Ryan Dean’s character growth was built on the lack of character growth of everyone else, particularly the female characters. I will admit my bias and say that I, personally, am tired of reading about boys coming of age and have hungered desperately for the same kinds of stories about girls. After delighting in those very stories for months, it was hard to peel myself away.
That said, Winger is a pretty big accomplishment and I respect Smith’s storytelling abilities. I would just be quicker to recommend Lockhart or Wolitzer to teens. The good news is, we have them all at JDL so no one really has to choose.