PLAIN BAD HEROINES – Emily M. Danforth

I don’t DNF (Do/Did Not Finish) books for assorted reasons.  (I can count on one hand the number of books I’ve abandoned after starting, and they still haunt me.)  A few hundred pages into Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines (Harper Collins 2020), I wanted to stop.  I had such high hopes for this sapphic gothic story-within-a -story, and it was quite the letdown, at least initially.  I kept reading hoping it would get better.  And it did, just too many pages into the 617-page novel.

Brookhants – a school for girls run by women.  A scandalous memoir embracing and encouraging young women to explore love and pleasures with other young women.  An obsession.  Or three.  Three ghastly deaths followed by three more.  The school never reopens and it, and the young women who met their demise there, become the ghosts who haunt the grounds in the stories people still tell.

Over a century later, Merritt Emmons, the brilliant and awkward child genius, puts the story to paper.  Centering on the queer history of the cursed school, the debut novel is a success.  Merritt was encouraged by Lainey Brookhants, current owner of the property, to write the story.  Lainey buys the movie rights and a mirror-image story-with-in-a-story develops.  Harper Harper (Nope – not a typo.), the current “it” girl, is cast as the lead.  Audrey, daughter of a washed-up scream queen with a few acting credits of her own is cast, against Merritt’s wishes, as the love interest.  The three young women are forced together prior to filming to forge a bond at the request of the director.  They all have their own secrets and pasts, as well as their own hauntings.  A modern love-story emerges.

The use of wasps both in 1902 and in present-day California shows the continued battle of the LGBTIQA+ community against the so-called WASPS – where the loudest condemnation still comes from – and the devastating and deadly effects this group had and continues to have.  It’s a bit on the nose and heavy-handily used, but it is effective.

With a nod to Jane Eyre (a tie-in that could really use a scholarly paper), the novel is addressed to the “Dear Reader” and told from an omniscient narrator who inserts her opinions, interesting tidbits and historical data through footnotes that are often cheeky little distractions.  I wasn’t a fan of the narrator – the style was fine – I just didn’t care for the voice.

Within the main story lines, there are multiple other stories nested – much like the cursed nesting doll that makes a couple of appearances.  These flash shorts and flashbacks are fantastic, and I wish there had been more of them.  That said, the novel would have been stronger with tighter editing, especially in the first half.  The tightening would have allowed the tongue-in-cheek dark and naughty humor to flank the horror better, and for the little dolls to shine.

It may have been a bit overhyped and not worth all the buzz (see what I did there), but for lovers of gothics and TMZ, this could be your jam.

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