January Book Club: Plain Bad Heroines
The first book that I tackled in 2023 was Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines, which has been on my TBR pile for a good while. Danforth first found acclaim with her debut The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a story of a teenage lesbian sent to a gay conversion camp in the 90s, which has also been adapted in a film. Danforth’s second offering, published a good four years later, is hard to sum up in a simple way, due its expansive plot and page count (coming in at an impressive 640 pages). But I will do my best!
The book follows two different storylines, one taking place in the past and one in the future, which of course coincide in a brilliant way. The first story takes place in 1902 at The Brookhants School for Girls, where a group of impressionable young girls have set up The Plain Bad Heroine Society. Devoted to young writer Mary MacLane, the students explore their sapphic tendencies until one by one they begin to die of mysterious deaths, eventually causing Brookhants to close its doors forever. The storyline that takes place in the present, over a century later, follows the wunderkind author Merritt, who has written a sparkling debut novel on the story of the cursed school. Her book inspires a horror film starring celebrity female actors, but as filming begins it seems as if the past is beginning to repeat itself in a particularly grim way.
It’s no doubt that this book is very ambitious; it is peppered with amusing footnotes and a collision of styles. The sections in the past are reminiscent of classic gothic Victorian tales, whilst the sections in the present contain modern slang and quippy asides. The full range of styles displays Danforth’s versatility as a writer, and with each part prone to ending on a cliffhanger before switching to the second storyline, the reader is kept gripped. I found I preferred the sections in the past more than those in the present day, but I am a particular fan of Victorian gothic literature. Whilst the writing is certainly creepy, it never tips into full-blown horror, meaning that those more nervous about the horror genre (myself), will have no trouble sleeping at night.
It is refreshing to read a novel so full of female characters, particularly sapphic characters, who don’t get trapped in all the usual stereotypes. In fact, men hardly feature in the novel at all. Though I usually prefer character-led books, Danforth manages to juggle a rampaging plot with the actualisation of multiple characters. They all feel distinct and believable even with the supernatural events surrounding them.