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Review: Not your average queer, meta-fictional spooky Victorian romp

Author Emily Danforth of "Plain Bad Heroines."
(Chris Mongeau)

On the Shelf

Plain Bad Heroines

By Emily Danforth
William Morrow: 640 pages, $28

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The term “middlebrow” still has the same stink about it as “mediocre.” Neither brain-tingling high-mindedness nor mass-market easy reading, too intensive for drugstore shelves but beneath the notice of online critical banter, middlebrow fiction is tucked away in a hidden valley between profit and prestige. A lot of perfectly fine books settle there, and we probably should leave them be. But there are times when a reader wants nothing more, and nothing less, than an exquisitely plotted, winkingly crafted romp.

Plain Bad Heroines,” a queer historical meta-novel by Emily Danforth with at least a dozen layers of formal flourish, is joyfully and delightfully middlebrow; I say this with reverence in my tone and adoration in my heart. It’s 600 pages you can read in a weekend, a supersized Slurpee that will satiate you and leave behind a sugar high. It bears more than a trace of 21st century meta-fiction but has deeper roots than that, as does meta-fiction itself, piling on all the tropes of self-aware 19th century novel writing. There are direct asides to the dear reader, George Eliot-esque epigraphs and even ink sketches of bustle-skirted ladies in distress. It’s also — to use a word rarely employed in high praise — fun.

Fair warning, though: Danforth tosses in so many narrative curlicues that explaining it induces the spins. This is as close as I can come to summary: Merritt Emmons, a wunderkind 20-something writer from Rhode Island, has written the bestselling “The Happenings at Brookhants,” a retelling of the bizarre turn-of-the-century deaths of several young women at the Brookhants School for Girls. The book-within-the-book follows Flo and Clara, two students known for their trysts in the Orangerie, who are ”swallowed up” by a swarm of yellowjackets on school grounds after reading and passing around “The Story of Mary MacLane,” the daring (real-life) memoir of a 19-year-old lesbian.

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Jenn Shapland’s “My Autobiography of Carson McCullers” and Mark Doty’s “What Is the Grass,” about Walt Whitman, are hybrid memoir-biographies.

Bo Dhillon, a hot-shot Hollywood director, is turning “The Happenings at Brookhants” into a film, and he’s cast “celesbian” sensation Harper Harper as Flo and Audrey Wells, a former child actor, as Clara. “Plain Bad Heroines” moves (for the most part) across these two storylines: Harper, Audrey and Merritt meeting and then collaborating on the film’s possibly haunted set; and the travails of Libbie Brookhants, head mistress of her namesake school, in 1902, dealing with her longtime secret girlfriend, Alex Trills, as well as the string of deaths and oddities that eventually get the place shut down.

To sum up, “Plain Bad Heroines” is a novel about a film adaptation of a book that’s about another book.

Book jacket for "Plain Bad Heroines," by Emily Danforth
(William Morrow/William Morrow)
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There is no literary embellishment in which Danforth won’t indulge. Her narrator winks at us from the footnotes. For example: “Mrs. Brookhants was a young widow and Miss Trills [Alex] was her devoted companion. Her very, very dear friend. Her confidante. Her bestie.* … *But, like, with benefits.” Another footnote simply reads, “F— Roman Polanski.” Tiny black drawings of yellowjackets are tucked into the corners of pages, as if they fell dead there and got pressed in like preserved wildflowers. The text of Harper and Audrey’s audition scene is slipped in — one of those flourishes you might mistake for postmodernism if you didn’t know (and Danforth lets you know) that late Victorians did this kind of text-jamming all the time.

In less dexterous hands, this sort of high-camp homage — which pops up perennially from novelists as varied as Susanna Clarke, Marisha Pessl and Reif Larsen — could fail spectacularly. When such extratextual tricks are tossed in half-heartedly, as assertions of mere playfulness, they’re just distractions. But for Danforth, it doesn’t just hang together, it coheres beautifully. She’s gifted at braiding characterization, suspenseful plotting and frequent injections of flat-out terror. And she knows that piling it on past the breaking point is a formal innovation all its own.

What’s more, Danforth writes potent women. Harper Harper (her name the result of her mother’s difficulty grasping both “To Kill a Mockingbird” and legal documentation) is an It Girl with a shtick, a lesbian Jennifer Lawrence who popped up out of Nowheresville, Mont., with a role in a gritty indie and then morphed into the kind of celebrity who has an identifying sartorial item (a slouched beanie) and a clique of paparazzi serving as her personal press machine. She’s a sex bomb, the kind who looks “Garbo glamorous in a slick white suit” at premieres. Audrey Wells is just pitiful enough to be plausible, a woman on the cusp of stardom who can’t quite get there. And Merritt Emmons is just scratchy and irritable enough to be plausible as a cranky writer who will never be satisfied with what others make of her work.

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Danforth’s women of the past, Libbie and Alex, never feel like they’ve ghost-walked out of a lame historical novel slobbering with descriptions of corsetry. The pseudo-closeted nature of their relationship is a burdensome third wheel — Alex favors a more out approach while Libbie believes that would destroy their reputations — tugging at the threads of their already unraveling union.

The sheer queerness of it all is exhilarating. No stock lesbians, and no coyness. Every major character is a queer woman — every last one — and each of them wears her sexuality differently, an idea that shouldn’t feel revelatory in 2020 but annoyingly does. Fiction with lesbian women at the helm is so often presented as if it has to stand for all queer culture. “Plain Bad Heroines” giggles at the very idea.

An illustration from Emily Danforth's novel, "Plain Bad Heroines," of a woman walking down stairs.
An illustration in Emily Danforth’s novel, “Plain Bad Heroines.”
(Sara Lautman)

But the biggest zing in “Plain Bad Heroines” is how joyfully it digs up old notions of fiction by and for ladies and spritzes them with glitter, heightening the tropes of romanticized literature until it doesn’t matter if Danforth is laughing at them or loving on them. There’s a house with a leaning old tower, a howling snowstorm, a vine-choked love shack, a mysterious baby. “The Haunting of Hill House” plus “Ethan Frome” plus “Picnic at Hanging Rock” with some dashes of Sarah Waters. Every chapter gallops.

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After Merritt and Audrey and Harper head to Rhode Island to film “The Happenings at Brookhants,” a series of strange disturbances roils the set. Back in 1902, Libbie and Alex try to track the influence of “The Story of Mary MacLane” as more young ladies end up dead — and we learn about their own entanglement with the scandalous memoir. Yellowjackets zip around, ominous little buzzers who “can and will sting you multiple times.” They turn up everywhere, floating in sudsy dish water and hovering “like a shadow made of static” by the side of the road. There are seances and demonic maids.

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Oddly, 600-odd pages later the novel comes to a crashing halt, as if Danforth ran out of steam. But it’s almost no matter, because “Plain Bad Heroines” has cast its curse so well. It’s sucked us into a thrilling story without ever letting us forget that we are readers, outside the text. It’s successfully played on and inverted the myth of a book as a haunted object, and at the same time made us afraid that even closing the book won’t prevent a zealous little insect from crawling out of its pages.

Kelly’s work has been published in New York Magazine, Vogue, the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere.


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