Plain Bad Heroines

by Emily M. Danforth

3 / 5 starts
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Two distinct, though probably not entirely different stories about queer women overlap at The Brookhants School for Girls. One set in 1902, one set in the present day, though the present day is never clearly defined. The New England boarding school that serves as the backdrop to both time periods has a dark history, one that goes back much farther than the tragic deaths of several girls at the school. Linked by their apparent infatuation with author Mary MacLane, there is talk of a curse, and a haunting… In the present day, the story of Brookhants is being made into a movie and our modern protagonists struggle to tell the difference between disturbances made by movie magic, and those brought to them courtesy of the estate’s history.

So I’ll say, this book was really long and wordy. It had a quirky “voice” to it, which sometimes I enjoyed and sometimes rubbed me the wrong way. It’s told through the eyes of an omniscient narrator, one that hints at being intimately involved in the story (which is a thread that I don’t think was fully tied up). I think the goal was for the narrator to seem effortlessly “in the know” and (at the risk of sounding old) “hip” but it often came off as annoying or trying to hard. So many real-life pop culture references that just seemed out of place and unnecessary, and I found myself rolling my eyes in a way that I imagine a Gen Zer rolling their eyes at a millennial on Tik Tok (do I sound hip yet?)

I actually really loved the historical story. I thought it would be much more focused on the girls involved in the Plain Bad Heroines Society from which the novel derives its name. Rather, the focus is on the owner and principal of the school, Libby Brookhants, and her relationship with her lover, and it’s impact on the horror that befell the school. While it didn’t follow the track that I thought it would based on the description of the book, I think I liked it better that way. The history and legend of the property was so well thought through, and the characters were very well-developed. The author did a great job of getting insider their heads and setting up their motivations.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that the modern plain, bad, heroines are as fully fleshed out as characters. Interesting, certainly, but not as fully developed as Libby and Alex, in my opinion. I was less invested in their arc. Frankly I spent most of the chapters devoted to the modern story counting down until we got back to 1902.

There’s also a lot of symbolism happening throughout, I mean, a lot. And I’m sure I didn’t even pick up on most of it because I am far from my days as a devoted student of literature. And maybe it makes me less cultured or thoughtful, but these days I read for sheer pleasure. I have no time or inclination to break down the meaning of the recurring yellow jackets, or any of the other clear symbols the author served up on a silver platter.

I’ll also add that while this is billed as horror, I don’t think it was that scary. Danforth certainly creates a spooky atmosphere, and there are some graphic gross-out moments, but I’m a notable wimp when it comes to horror and mostly listened to this audiobook at night, sometimes in the dark, while everyone else in my house slept without fear of losing sleep.

Overall it was a good book, but honestly I think it could have been just as, likely more, successful with the 1902 storyline as an independent novel. Frankly if I separate the two, this would have been a 4.5 / 5 stars I think. So much of the modern day story I spent just waiting for something to happen, and nothing ever really happened.

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