While it hasn’t had much media coverage, this book certainly made waves among educators seeking inspirational literature for teen girls. It got my attention, even with “disreputable history” in the title. I figured it was about a girl who wasn’t afraid to stand out from the crowd, who set herself goals and worked to achieve them. I wasn’t wrong, except that I had presumed her goals would be good ones.
Here’s how the story goes.
Frankie is a 15-year-old knockout who graduated so recently from geeky girlhood that’s she’s still dusting its dirt from her clothes. With her newfound popularity comes a dawning ambition for power. She seeks recognition not just for her looks and smart comments (and much less her ability to be adorable and cute when cared for), but for her intelligence and ability to succeed.
She became the girlfriend of idolised Matthew Livingstone after she fell off her bike and he gallantly came to her aid. However, she doesn’t want a ‘carer’ boyfriend, she wants him to recognise her for her talents, and to treat her as an equal with whom he shares everything. So she’s outrageously jealous when she learns he and his male friends are in a secret boy’s society which has been around since her father’s school days, and she immediately looks for ways to regain command of Matthew’s attention.
Sometimes she uses her girl power, tantalising kisses on the cheek contradicted with hard-to-get reserve. Other times it’s through her witty comments and carefully unselfconscious ways showing off. But her ultimate triumph is when she forges emails from the secret boy’s club leader and begins to direct their pranks.
The trouble is that to Frankie, power without recognition is useless, so her secret waits with a bursting impatience to be revealed. Once it is out and they learn that Frankie has been telling them what to do, they are not impressed with her cleverness. Instead, they despise her, Matthew especially, for the lie she’s been living.
So where did she go wrong? The second-last paragraph of the book gives us some insight because it shows just how selfish her ambition has become:
“It is better to be alone, she figures, than to be with someone who can’t see who you are. It is better to lead than to follow. It is better to speak up than stay silent. It is better to open doors than to shut them on people.
She will not be simple and sweet. She will not be what people tell her she should be. That Bunny Rabbit is dead.”
This is postmodern feminism at its best. But is it the true path to happiness? Is loneliness better than sharing life with someone who doesn’t fully understand you? Is it always a bad thing to follow, even if you freely choose to do so? And isn’t it rather childish to always want to lead, as though having a line of followers is the only proof of your worth?
I agree that it is usually better to speak up than stay silent, but not when you only speak up in order to be the centre of attention and have others bow down before you. It is also better to open doors than to shut them on people, but not if you are only opening them for yourself and are ignoring the needs of others anyway.
It is true that seeking to appear cute and adorable is rather useless, but what’s wrong with developing real sensitivity of character, of trying to be a good friend?
If this story is anything to go by, power doesn’t lead to happiness, but to bitter triumph. Yet the book seems to try to harden you to its bitterness, to deaden your sensitivity, to make you believe that power is worthwhile in spite of the loneliness that surrounds it. I couldn’t agree less.
What are your thoughts on other good or bad books with strong female characters?
Clare Cannon lives in Sydney where she is the manager of Portico Books.