Our story begins in 1902, at The Brookhants School for Girls. Flo and Clara, two impressionable students, are obsessed with each other and with a daring young writer named Mary MacLane, the author of a scandalous bestselling memoir. To show their devotion to Mary, the girls establish their own private club and call it The Plain Bad Heroine Society. They meet in secret in a nearby apple orchard, the setting of their wildest happiness and, ultimately, of their macabre deaths. This is where their bodies are later discovered with a copy of Mary’s book splayed beside them, the victims of a swarm of stinging, angry yellow jackets. Less than five years later, The Brookhants School for Girls closes its doors forever—but not before three more people mysteriously die on the property, each in a most troubling way.
Over a century later, the now abandoned and crumbling Brookhants is back in the news when wunderkind writer, Merritt Emmons, publishes a breakout book celebrating the queer, feminist history surrounding the “haunted and cursed” Gilded-Age institution. Her bestselling book inspires a controversial horror film adaptation starring celebrity actor and lesbian it girl Harper Harper playing the ill-fated heroine Flo, opposite B-list actress and former child star Audrey Wells as Clara. But as Brookhants opens its gates once again, and our three modern heroines arrive on set to begin filming, past and present become grimly entangled—or perhaps just grimly exploited—and soon it’s impossible to tell where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins.
I know this is usually the part where I give you a little summary of the book but with Plain Bad Heroines that is virtually impossible. A story within a story, within a film, within a story. This book spans generations, is told from multiple POV’s, is wondrously feminist, Sapphic and chilling and it had me gripped from page one.
This is one of those rare books that you love, you get completely dragged into, and when you’ve finished you can help but struggle to put it into words. The main story follows two different timelines that of Brookhants in 1902 where the mysterious death of multiple girls at the school is linked to a little red book: The Story of Mary Maclane. And a modern story where three girls become entwined in the making of a film based on the deaths of Flo and Clara at Brookhants over 100 years ago. How are the two linked you may ask. Are they linked by the deaths? Are they linked by the strange happening at the school, by the buzzing and random appearance of Yellow Jackets… or is it something older? This book is genuinely impossible to talk about without leaving little spoilers everywhere so you might have to bear with me.
Told through an Omniscient third person perspective. The narrator is always one step ahead of us as the reader and as well as the main storyline they give us little tit bits of information, sometimes funny, sometimes important and sometimes scathing, empathetic, defensive. And we get these bits of information through footnotes (think Nevernight for the amount and the content.) Because of this, the narration chops between timelines, perspectives and even deviates from the two main storylines when they feel they have some prudent information. In any other book, this style of storytelling simply would not have worked, it would have seemed too jumpy and erratic. But with Plain Bad Heroines, the author manages to weave it together seamlessly, no matter how abrupt the change in perspective may be, it makes perfect sense to the story and makes for a smooth if not quirky plot.
Is there a straight character in this book? If there is I didn’t find them? Kidding, kidding, there is of course the token straight character. One’s who have small parts to play in the story, I would say with little impact but every single character in this book, every single person we are introduced to is important… and there are ALOT of people. But the MC’s all 5 of them, are brilliantly Sapphic. In fact this whole book is completely and unabashedly Sapphic. From Libbie and Alex, and Flo and Clara in 1902 to Harper, Audrey and Merritt who are our modern Plain Bad Heroines, the author takes feminism and queerness and absolutely rolls with it. This book is both character and plot driven, another rarity and it works.
As well as being super Sapphic, Plain Bad Heroines is seriously creepy. Like read with the lights on creepy. You never quite know who you can trust, whether what the characters are experiencing is actually happening, and through that whether what you are reading is actually happening. We are also kept in the dark as to what is causing the deaths in 1902, and the strange things that are happening on set in the modern day. Is it Mary Maclanes book, is it a curse, is it something much darker. Because of this, and the open ending the author leaves us with, it is easy to find yourself questioning every interaction you have read, every character you have been introduced too, and instead of leaving you with everything in a nice neat bow, she manages to leave you with more unanswered questions.
Plain Bad Heroines is one of those books that I know will get better every time I re-read it, I will pick up new things, little bits of information I missed the first time around. It it not a book you can power through, not just because at over 600 pages it’s a bit of a chonk, but because if you do try and read it in one sitting I can almost guarantee you will miss way too much. I can’t tell you how much I loved this book, everything from the characters, the writing style and the general plot. I can easily see this becoming a cult classic, having the same sway over readers as Mary Maclanes had in this except, you know… with less deaths.