emily m. danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines is a doorstop, but every page is ripe with delight and terror
“‘You can see how uncomfortable it makes her,’ Elaine said as if Harper were now her conspirator. ‘Even now, even with the book written, she’s still embarrassed by how messy and fleshy it is when I forget to keep it only in the past for her — the stink of it has her wrinkling her nose. That’s history for you, darlings. When you dig it up, it always carries a whiff of rot.’”
emily m. danforth’s astonishing adult debut, Plain Bad Heroines, is a novel about a cursed book, a book about that cursed book, a film adaptation of that book, and a film about the making of that movie. It’s illustrated with enchanting old-fashioned drawings, and is peppered with footnotes that resemble the asides of a cheeky, good-humored character addressing their audience in a movie. It’s an ambitious story that from a lesser author would be an incomprehensible mess, but in danforth’s capable hands, it’s an absorbing, funny horror romp that I would recommend for anyone but those with a debilitating fear of yellow jackets.
It begins with a death. Two deaths, actually: Clara Broward and Flo Hartshorn. Clara and Flo are two wealthy students at the Brookhants School for Girls, a progressive boarding school in Rhode Island in 1902. The girls, who are founders of what is essentially a book club known as the Plain Bad Heroines Society after the controversial book The Story of Mary MacLane, are in love and running into the woods away from Clara’s horrible, homophobic cousin Charles. There, they meet a brutal, agonizing end clasped in each other’s arms.
Clara and Flo’s death in only the starting point of this book; the reader never spends any more time with them. Instead, much of the novel is divided between two narratives: the story of Libbie Brookhants, proprietor of the Brookhants School for Girls, and her romantic partner, Alexandra Trills, as they investigate the deaths of Clara, Flo, and another student at the school, and the role Mary MacLane’s book may (or may not) have played in it; and modern day Los Angeles and Rhode Island, where the famous horror director Bo Dhillon is making a movie based off wunderkind writer Merritt Emmons’ book about Brookhants, starring the lesbian hearthrob Harper Harper and horror movie royalty Audrey Wells.
It’s a sprawling tale, complicated by literary references and inside jokes and a rich, layered, fully-realized mythology underlying the whole thing. I’m imagining the author, like Charlie Day from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, standing before a wall cluttered with papers, a mess of red string making a roadmap atop it. But unlike Charlie, it all falls into place here: the book’s plotting is sophisticated, the complex machinations that may have gone into its creation made intelligible and, most importantly, fun for the reader to experience and parse.
Some things get muddled in the story of the curse itself, which unfolds in earnest in the last 150 pages or so. Those sections could have benefited from a more straightforward approach, particularly since the book is so expansive. In such a large story, it’s easy for things to get lost, and some readers might like a little more guidance than is offered here. (Also, formatting note: the footnotes, while delightful, are easy to miss — the dots that serve as asterisks are, honestly, too small for my tired old eyes, and I often found myself at the end of a page, staring at a footnote that I hadn’t known was coming.)
Suffice to say, this is a book you’ll want a physical copy of, not a e-book and possibly not even an audiobook (although it will be narrated by one of my favorite audiobook narrators, Rebecca Lowman, so maybe in that case it’s worth the possible confusion that can be mostly avoided with dog-ears and hand-written notes indicating clearly important passages).
Small quibbles aside, Plain Bad Heroines is a brilliant novel about the power of history and storytelling, and one of my favorite books so far this year. It’s everything so many of us need right now: entertaining, good-humored, completely absorbing, wickedly smart, and a little bit scary.
PLAIN BAD HEROINES comes out on October 20. Buy it from Bookshop!
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