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Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

A modern gothic novel for the current generation of readers who are always looking for another queer icon. Full of spooky sapphic romance, curses, yellow jackets that will haunt you for many years to come and a really backwards story of friendship. 

I went into Plain Bad Heroines extremely hyped. I read The Miseducation of Cameron Post in 2018, in anticipation for the film but, say it with me friends—THE BOOK IS ALWAYS BETTER. Danforth’s ability to completely flesh out a character was mesmerizing so I patiently waited for her next book. When I finally found out her new release was a gothic paranormal horror TOME (617 pages!!), I was fall-off-my-chair excited. We first meet the notoriously cursed school of Brookhants in 1902 when two lovers, Clara and Flo are racing to rekindle since returning to school, when they both meet an unfortunate and savage death—swarmed by yellow jackets. An undisputed fact of their death was that their much loved and page marked copy of The Story of Mary MacLane was found near their bodies. This is how the story of Brookhants begins. One hundred years later, the legend of Brookhants is as prolific as ever with a blockbuster Hollywood movie being made about the rumoured curse that haunts its halls.

Plain Bad Heroines is layered, to say to the least. We float between the early 1900s and present day. As readers we are completely at the hands of the narrator because we know there is a curse BUT WHAT IS THE CURSE? The tension building in this novel is slow burning but there are other subplot elements going on in order to keep you distracted while Danforth gives us sleight of hand gestures when it comes to revealing elements of the context that builds our modern day movie. If you are planning to read Plain Bad Heroines I must warn, there is a fair amount going on. However, Danforth does a good job of maintaining the flow and connections within the novel. We have a fairly wide cast of characters but there is an overwhelming sense of continuity. None are forgotten or left behind, or dropped in unexpectedly (okay maybe one or two, but not without a well-explained purpose). The tree of characters is appropriately defined, we remain well informed of everyone’s roles and no stone is left unturned. It can often feel like an author has bitten off more than they can chew with so much going on, but Plain Bad Heroines felt meticulously plotted, flying straight under our pretty little noses most of the time. As we crept to the end I felt confused and this really plagued me. I thought ‘how can I get to this after a whole entire book of complex clarity’ but when that twist comes, baby you’ll be caught in a tricky thicket. 

Our three present day heroines are Merritt Emmons, Audrey Wells and Harper Harper. When she was younger Merritt wrote The Happenings At Brookhants, the book that is being adapted and starring Audrey and Harper. These three characters were incredibly complex in such a familiar way. Each of them had their own turmoil and traumas but it didn’t immobilize their ability to exist. Each heroine's personal struggles seemed privy only to the reader. It felt like we were getting extra insight into their psychology. They are complex in the way normal people are complex, this is something I felt Danforth did extremely well once again. The ease by which I got a full scope of who our heroines are and their role in this book was extraordinary. Now, take three heroines and put them in a room together and we have TENSION, PEOPLE—sexual or otherwise. I will not reveal the relationship dynamics and how they play out, I’ll let you devour that yourself but as I said the tension was absolutely palpable, it was almost turning the pages for me. The relationships in this novel felt incredibly real and all too familiar. We have all been in situations—don’t lie to me and pretend you are so good that this DOESN’T happen to you—where you meet someone and just don’t vibe them, for no reason at all. However, inevitably as you get to know them you come to learn they are actually great and bestie material. The way this familiar relationship is explored creates a point of reference for readers in a comforting way. The content nature of Plain Bad Heroines is much more broad reaching than The Miseducation Of Cameron Post, and I loved the heartwarming friendship relationship dynamic that existed outside of the amazing sapphic elements.

A curse—excuse my pun—of excellent character development means that there are going to be elements of our heroines we love, and elements that we hate. As far as young millennial leading ladies go we can’t see a completely bad apple in sight (another pun, IYKYK). It is easy to create dramatic, disastrous and irreparably contentious relationships amongst women but I liked the way growth and self awareness shone through our heroines. Harper needs to get off her fucking phone, Audrey needs to believe in herself, and Merritt needs to work on her positive attitude—but don’t we all?!? As they reflect the parts of us we love they similarly reflect the parts of us we hate. Our heroines felt guilt, sorrow, apologised for their actions and owned up when they fucked up. This representation of people owning their misgivings is such a cherry on top of an insanely entertaining read.

Plain Bad Heroines has sparked a fear of the paranormal in me I have never felt before. Doors creaking in the middle of the night and distant buzzing instantly makes my whole body stiffen. The imagery that Danforth created here is next to none. The oversaturation of the yellow jacket imagery was phenomenal. Usually I am not one to get jiggy with the repeated beating of the same drum but in this case I loved it. The repetitive nature of not only the yellow jackets but other key places in the book, like the Orangerie (bougie greenhouse) where Flo, Clara, and another key character I will not name (trust me, you’ll want to read this for yourself) often escaped, helped create an easily imagined scenery. Getting two perspectives of the same setting was really interesting because it is like having someone on the inside, our present day heroines are taking the tour for us. We get to see what has lasted and what hasn’t but it doesn’t matter how much bricks and mortar age the essence, a legacy and even a curse can live on forever. 

As much as I consumed Plain Bad Heroines, Plain Bad Heroines consumed me. I was sucked into the world of Brookhants and didn’t want to leave. I was completely under the curse of Brookhants and I simply wouldn’t have it any other way. As I closed the last page of this book I felt an ache in my chest knowing that it was over. I already wanted to go back. This special book with a red spine has completely corrupted me so henceforth consider me a plain bad heroine, or don’t consider me at all.

Plain Bad Heroines

By Emily M. Danforth

617 pages. 2020.


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