Young women will savor this subversive cautionary tale of a
girl geek's exhilarating pursuit of power -- sexual, intellectual, and social --
within the retrograde, male-dominated world of an elite boarding school.
As her sophomore year at Alabaster Preparatory Academy begins, Frankie Landau-Banks, articulate and savvy about almost everything except love, learns quickly that secondary sexual characteristics aren't secondary at all. The formerly invisible freshman girl has "transformed from a homely child into a loaded potato", a potato that one desirable boy in particular finds as deliciously appealing as Frankie finds him. Lockhart arranges things so that the mere sight of her crush, senior Matthew Livingston, sends Frankie tumbling off her bicycle. With ironic efficiency, Lockhart has Frankie rescued, flirted with, and charmed. There is no surprise when Frankie becomes Matthew Livingston's girlfriend, a package deal that includes entry into Alabaster Prep's powerful and exclusive pack of mostly rich, brilliant and dominant senior boys.
Frankie frankly enjoys Matthew's kisses, his chivalry, his wit, and his friends. She considers herself to be in love (this reader has her doubts that love has much to do with it) and enjoys love's privileges, especially the cozy feeling of being inside her boyfriend's world. Except that Lockhart demonstrates, first in little ways, and then in big ones, that Frankie isn't really "in," and that to the Alabaster Prep overdogs, there is a huge difference between "friend" and "girlfriend": Friends come first, friends are irreplaceable, and friends are male.
Lockhart creates a credible and amusing all-male secret Alabaster Prep society, the Bassets, to which Matthew and his friends belong and from which Frankie is excluded, to dramatize the nature of their all-male fellowship. The Bassets are a relaxed fraternity who hang out, drink beer, and pull an occasional half-hearted prank. But despite its lack of excitement, for Frankie's boyfriend, the Bassets' all-boy old boy allure will trump Frankie's charms every time.
Frankie is stung when she realizes just how this boy-boy vs. boy-girl stuff works but she is too strategic for tantrums. Instead, she becomes the mistress of all things passive aggressive: spying, forging, scheming, lying and manipulation. She overpowers and controls the Bassets through a series of audacious email impersonations, then uses the secret society to pull off an escalating series of pranks, part conceptual art pieces, part social protest, that unite the student body and invert the Alabaster status quo.
Frankie succeeds in publicly exercising her brilliance and thoroughly spites her superficial boyfriend and his buddies. But Frankie's self-actualizing schemes hurt people, and she gets burned, literally and figuratively. She returns, at least on the surface, to being the geek she was before Matthew Livingston fell in love with her. Love and loss have indelibly marked this Frankie, but she's not exactly chastened by experience cynical and sobered is more like it. If Frankie has learned anything, it is how to be opaque, ambitious and expedient.
Lockhart has a sensitive ear for her characters' young voices; the dialogue is funny and real. I admired Frankie's intelligence and complexity, her drive to master serious and complicated ideas, especially when she struggles to figure out what it means to be female feminist, geek and goddess.
This review was originally published in April 2008, and has been updated for the August 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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