The tone of the book is helpful, informative, and rather thoughtful, if we may say so. Though it's told from the point of view of a third-person narrator, it's not just your typical laying down of facts and figures. The tone isn't cold or scientific in any way; instead, the narrative strays away from straight up storytelling at certain points to explore the Big Ideas behind all the hullabaloo.
For example, after the party on the golf course, the narrator spends a little bit of time going over the different ways in which hypothetical females could react to a macho situation:
Most young women, when confronted with the peculiarly male nature of certain social events […] will react in one of three ways. (13.47)
That detail certainly isn't necessary to the telling of the story, but it does offer the reader a little bit of perspective or some thought-provoking ideas. Maybe it's a reflection of how thoughtful our protagonist, Frankie, turns out to be. After all, she turns out to be quite the mastermind with all her machinations. Plus it clues us in to how Frankie slowly shapes her ideas about broader social issues, and how they apply to her own life and situation.
With a fifteen-year-old protagonist who's navigating the ins and outs of boarding school life, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks definitely falls into the young adult category. After all, Frankie's life resembles that of many other teenage girls in that she has a huge crush on a popular boy, wants to be accepted by the cooler kids, and is excited to be known as something other than Zada's little sister. There's also a smattering of drama mixed in, and a fair heaping of teenage rebellion.
Frankie may be a typical teenage girl in some ways, but she's got an adventurous, rebellious streak that just won't quit. With the discovery of The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, Frankie embarks on a one-woman adventure to make all those dogs bark and sit when she tells them to. She hides her real identity and operates via email and through cryptic messages instead, like many other adventurous masked heroes of yore. In her very own adventure story, Frankie crawls through abandoned tunnels, steals keys, and impersonates people in positions of power, all on her quest to take down the patriarchy and challenge the status quo.
In The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, little Miss Frankie goes from being a slightly awkward, fourteen-year-old "Bunny Rabbit" (the most mature of pet names) to a devious fifteen-year-old wreaking havoc and challenging the norms at her prestigious boarding school. The fact of the matter is, this is a story about a girl who is growing up, and all the messy, painful, funny bits that come along with it. She's learning how to navigate the dangerous social waters of high school while finding her own identity at the same time.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is a play on the history of the secret society that Frankie manages to find: The Disreputable History of the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds. When Frankie discovers that book, she's still trying to get in with the Basset Hounds, even though she's a girl. She desperately wants to fit in and be accepted, and even thinks that if she masterminds the pranks and they find out, they'll initially be mad but might let her in after they've cooled off.
But over the course of the book, Frankie manages to make things happen all by herself. This isn't a story about Frankie as part of a collective; this is a story about Frankie. Just Frankie making things happen for herself and for others. The book therefore becomes Frankie's own story, rather than the story of the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds.
That's why in the end the book is named just for Frankie and not for the whole group. She's alone in the end, having lost her boyfriend and having been rejected by the entire Loyal Order. But she's not defeated by it. No, Frankie is still going strong, proud of the disreputable history she's created all on her own.
If the beginning of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks opens with Frankie meeting a cute boy at the beach, then the ending turns this moment on its head. In the end, we see Frankie having an exchange with her ex-boyfriend Matthew that's sad and fraught with tension. Frankie wants to reach out to Matthew and connect even after everything that happened between them, but Matthew rebuffs her:
Matthew would rather let her keep the shirt than interact with Frankie for another second. He hates her that much.
He turns away, and the dogs follow.
Frankie chokes back tears. She doesn't want the shirt anyway. (46.56-58)
Frankie starts crying over this; after all, she's still a fifteen-year-old girl whose former boyfriend (a gorgeous, popular senior) doesn't even want to talk to her anymore. But the ending really becomes poignant when Frankie stops crying because she realizes that she doesn't need Matthew after all:
It is better to be alone, she figures, than to be with someone who can't see who you are. It is better to lead than to follow. It is better to speak up than stay silent. (46.60)
That she doesn't regret anything she did, because she was being true to herself and she doesn't need a boyfriend who wants to keep her docile and sweet anyway. It's more important for her to be Frankie Landau-Banks than to be Matthew Livingston's girlfriend.
The first thing we learn about the idyllic campus of Alabaster Preparatory School is that
Information as to the locale and setting of Alabaster, its course requirements, and the sports activities required therein will be given in these pages solely on a need-to-know basis. (5.1)
Well, gee, that's helpful. Despite this warning that descriptions are going to be sparse, we get pretty ingrained into the culture and scenery of Alabaster. After all, this is where Frankie spends all her time, wandering across those perfect lawns and staring up at the old buildings that have been there since her dad attended school there. The school has quite a history:
Alabaster Preparatory School had begun some 120 years ago on a piece of land that had been subsequently developed into the large, rambling campus where Frankie went to school. (27.45)
But underneath the idyllic setting is a place that has a whole lot of rules (see our take on the "Panopticon" in our "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory" section). And Frankie starts to find the whole place a little more restrictive than comforting.
That's because everything is determined by the past—by how much money your parents had, and by the traditions they cherished for whatever reason. Frankie's tired of this; she wants to break free from the constructs that confine her. She doesn't want to be at a school that prides itself on tradition because she thinks a lot of those traditions are just plain stupid. If you ask Frankie, Alabaster's traditions keep people from moving upward and forward, so that the school can maintain the status quo.
Sure, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is a story about an adolescent girl, but it's not overly fluffy or easy-peasy. Our Frankie is a pretty savvy girl, and so it makes sense that the book would tackle some serious themes—not to mention some serious vocabulary (can anyone say "panopticon"?). It's got big themes and big words, but it's still a relatively easy trek. Grab your dictionary, put your philosophical thinking cap on, and you'll be ready for the road.
Sure, the narrator has her rambling and reflective, but for the most part, the writing style is quite civilized, Austen-esque, even. The writing style is crisp and clear and tells the readers what we need to know in a detailed way without getting too derailed or at all confusing. For example, here is how the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds is described:
The Loyal Order of the Basset Hound had been conceived as a society for the elect among Alabaster students—"elect" meaning those from particularly loyal and moneyed Alabaster families, and meaning also those who were considered cool enough. (21.16)
Instead of just mentioning the Loyal Order in passing or leaving the reader in suspense to wonder what exactly being an "elect" student means, the book tells us in no uncertain terms. Like we said—crisp, clear and to the point.
Even though Alabaster is a beautifully lush campus, it's no coincidence that Frankie compares it to the original panopticon, which was a design for a hypothetical prison:
[E]veryone in the panopticon knew they could be watched at all times, so in the end, only minimal watching actually needed to happen. The panopticon would create a sense of paranoia so pervasive that its inhabitants became practically self-governing. (10.9)
Though it is a highly selective (and expensive) boarding school, Alabaster also happens to carry quite a bit of rules with it. And however fancypants it might be, it's really eerily similar to the panopticon, when it comes to atmosphere:
Security at Alabaster was lax. The feeling of being watched generated by the panoptical nature of the boarding school institution was enough to keep most of the students obeying the rules without the need for any serious levels of surveillance. (12.1)
Yep, there's no denying that Alabaster's a bit of a prison, where there are lots of expressed rules and even more unspoken ones. Frankie finds herself navigating these dangerous waters, trying to decide whether she's even allowed to sit at the senior table by herself before everyone else gets there, or if she should retreat back to her sophomore table.
In the prison of Alabaster, Frankie and the other students feel like they're being watched even when they're not. There's the scene where Alpha comes to get Frankie to go get pizza with them and she hesitates, even though the likelihood of getting caught is rather low:
"Who's gonna know?" he asked her.
Alpha had a point. But such is the nature of the panopticon: most students at Alabaster didn't leave campus—even though it was as simple as hopping over a low stone wall. "I don't want to get caught," Frankie said. (14.10-11)
Neurotic much, Frankie? Ah, but that's the nature of the Alabaster panopticon, where students are afraid to rock the boat, even though they know the consequences might never materialize. It plays on their internal worries and neuroses, and takes advantage of their desire to please:
It's a systematic paranoia. Like, when you have that creepy sense that your dad knows you drank that beer, even though you drank it four days ago and there's no evidence whatsoever that he knows. (10.19)
The systematic paranoia is actually two-fold. It comes from both the school and from the students. Frankie feels forced at first to follow the rules, to only sit at the senior table when she's invited, to act sweet and understanding when her boyfriend ditches her. She knows what she's supposed to do, but finds it increasingly, disgruntlingly pointless.
By the novel's end, Frankie learns that there's no point in catering to that kind of "systematic paranoia." She can do what she wants and if she's smart and careful enough, she won't get caught. And when she finally does get caught, it's on her own terms—she confesses to Matthew. So in a cool way, the panopticon never worked on her at all. No one was observing Frankie, and so they're all surprised when she's the one who messes with the system.
Ah, young love. What's a better symbol of teenage romance than the girl wearing an article of her boyfriend's clothing? We've seen examples of it in countless movies (hello, Letterman jacket) and it's always depicted as a symbol of love and commitment.
Zada, though, has quite a different take on it. When Frankie excitedly tells her sister about the passing on of the Superman t-shirt, Zada responds negatively:
"Ugh, Frankie, don't be so retro. I mean, Matthew's a good guy and all, but wearing his T-shirt is like wearing a sign that says 'Property of Matthew Livingston' on your breasts." (18.33)
Yikes. In Zada's opinion, the t-shirt is more of a sign of ownership than anything. Matthew is marking Frankie as his property, and not only that, but he's also telling her how to be. He wants her to be the kind of younger girlfriend who looks hot in his t-shirt and wears it because she adores him and wants to be his all the time.
Maybe it doesn't seem serious that he just wants to see her wearing his t-shirt because he thinks it looks good (or it turns him on), but this kind of attitude has serious implications later on. Frankie begins to see that Matthew wants Frankie to fulfill a specific role as his girlfriend, and her brazen, Miss Independent self doesn't quite mesh with that.
The shirt therefore becomes a symbol of the power in the relationship, and how Matthew holds all that power because of his status:
[B]ut she was a heterosexual sophomore with no boyfriend and no social power (especially now that Zada had graduated). On what planet would a girl in her position refuse to go to a golf course party with Matthew Livingston? (12.42)
In the end, Frankie tries to give back Matthew's shirt after they've broken up, as if to say that she doesn't need him to tell her what to do anymore. She's her own person. She won't be defined as his girlfriend or his property. She tells us straight up, "she doesn't want the shirt anyway" (46.58). She has plenty of her own shirts, and can make things happen for herself.
Money, money, money. It brings out the best and the worst in people. At Alabaster, it's simply a given that money and wealth are flaunted around, because many of the students come from highly affluent backgrounds. That means that in this world, wealth often equals status. Even at fifteen and sixteen, the characters are impressed with each other's backgrounds—so-and-so's dad runs this company, or that so-and-so's family inherited that industry. That's what makes folks like Elizabeth Heywood stand out so much:
Frankie knew that Elizabeth had earned the money that was putting her through Alabaster […] so she differed from her fellow students in the way that new money differs from old. (15.2)
The school is swimming in wealth—even the folks who stand out, money-wise, are still filthy rich. And that means that money is nothing to these students, as it becomes clear when Frankie plans her pranks and gets the students to order everything on their credit cards:
The necessary Internet purchase tasks have been distributed broadly among those of you who have bottomless credit cards. (33.10)
Moolah, dinero, dolla dolla bills, y'all. No matter what you call it, it's clear that cash allows the more moneyed students to enter the top tier secret society at school—the Loyal Order of the Basset Hound. The students who come from old money Basset families (where their fathers, grandfathers, and other relatives have been inducted) are the ones more likely to be "tapped" to join the club. Which means that the whole enterprise just perpetuates the separation between the old elite and those who aren't worthy.
For a girl who gets a lot of positive attention after she fills in, Frankie sure has a cynical take on boobs:
Boobs are just inherently undignified. Those are what I've got that keeps me out of the Loyal Order. (31.44-45)
For Frankie, her breasts are the very reason that she's excluded. They signal her gender to all the world. Basically, she doesn't get to play with the big boys and be respected in the same way because she's a pretty girl with a curvy body.
So when she pulls off her first prank, she tries to provide some commentary on this. She makes sure that all the statues and paintings on campus are outfitted in bright bras, even though they're all of men, and wonders,
"Couldn't it be pointing out how there are like, no women in any of the paintings on campus?" said Frankie. "Could it be saying, 'Where are the women to fill out these bras?'" (33.38)
In a way, it's not breasts that are the problem. It's the fact that people think less of them or think of them as merely decorative. It's the fact that people don't take women seriously that's the problem, and the fact that there aren't enough of them in positions of power at the school (or in general).
This whole sordid tale of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is told from the perspective of an uninvolved third-person narrator who happens to know everything that's going on in one character's head: Frankie's.
The narrator tells us everything we need to know about the layout of the school, the way the social hierarchy is set up, and more. But in addition to the mere facts of the situation, the narrator tells us how Frankie is feeling and thinking. We can literally read her mind as she begins formulating her schemes and plans. We get to see how she feels about everything. So we know that while on the outside she looks perfectly happy, inside she's actually fuming about the fact that she knows her boyfriend is lying to her. Without all these details, we would never get to know Frankie as well as we do.
For example, even when Frankie is seemingly nonchalant about Star's breakup, we get to see how she's taking it on the inside:
Frankie nodded, but she wasn't thinking about Star.
She was thinking how easy it would be for the same thing to happen to her. (23.20-21)
Even though Frankie seems composed and naïve on the outside, her mind's always working on overdrive. And we get to see some of those cogs in motion.
So if the narrator is sticking so close to Frankie, you have to wonder why Frankie isn't just telling us this story in her own words. In Shmoop's humble opinion, that's because having a third person narrator allows the book to keep a healthy distance from Frankie when it needs to. We know before she does when Frankie's just fooling herself about her relationship with Matthew, and we know there's more than a little spark between her and Alpha, too (who's hoping for a sequel?).
In the beginning, young Frankie is just entering her sophomore year of high school. She's gotten a lot hotter over the summer, which is great because she captures the attention of her crush, Matthew Livingston. They start going out and she gets to hang out with his table of popular senior boys. Everything seems la-di-da-di fantastic, doesn't it? Well that's just the set-up for the craziness that's coming down the pike.
Cracks start to form in the veneer of Frankie's perfect life, as the year progresses. First of all, she finds out that Matthew is lying to her and is in the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, a secret society at the school. As much as she'd like to be a part of it, she knows she'd never be included because of her gender, which is Not Cool. So she starts to infiltrate the whole operation by pretending to be Alpha and masterminding all their pranks, going so far as to sneak around and steal the keys to the different buildings at school. There's no way this could go wrong, right?
Things come to a head when Alpha is found in the school tunnels and is blamed for all the trespassing and pranks that have been going on. When Matthew lies to Frankie and tells her that he had no idea about what Alpha was doing, she breaks down and tells him that she was the one who did everything. Instead of thinking that she's quite smart and brilliant, Matthew is disgusted and tells her that she's sick. He goes off to the dean's office to report Frankie and turn her in. It's the big reveal we've been waiting for all along, and all that's left is to see where the chips fall.
Frankie loses her boyfriend and has to deal with the repercussions of being quite notorious at Alabaster now that it's come out that she's the culprit behind all the shenanigans. She's kind of sad about the whole thing, but she also likes the fact that people are talking about her. They're not underestimating her anymore. Even when she goes home for the holidays, no one calls her a Bunny Rabbit. So while her dastardly deeds had some not-so-nice consequences, it wasn't a total loss.
At the very end, Frankie tries to talk to Matthew again because there's a part of her that really misses him. After all, he was her boyfriend and she really liked him. But when he reacts poorly and doesn't want anything to do with her, she has to come to peace with the fact that she can't be with someone who doesn't accept her for who she is. She's not with Matthew anymore, and that's okay. She still has herself. How's that for a resolution?