Hi everyone! I hope you’re all doing well, despite the current circumstances we find ourselves in. Over the past few days I’ve been reading a true brick of a book – Plain Bad Heroines, as I’m sure you could glean from the title of this post – and since I know a lot of people are looking forward to this release (myself included), I thought I’d do a little review of the audiobook ARC I was so kindly approved for on Netgalley by the publishers!
Title: Plain Bad Heroines
Author: Emily M. Danforth
Genre: Horror, Historical Fiction, LGBT, Adult
Synopsis: 1902, Brookhants School for Girls: students Flo and Clara are madly in love with each other, as well as completely obsessed with The Story of Mary MacLane, the scandalous debut memoir by 19 year old MacLane. A few months later they are found dead in the woods, after a horrific wasp attack, the book lying next to their intertwined bodies. Within five years the school is closed. But not before three more people die on the property, each in a troubling way.
Over a hundred years later, Brookhants opens its doors once more, when a crew of young actresses arrive to film a high-profile movie about the rumoured Brookhants curse. And as past and present become grimly entangled, it’s soon impossible to tell quite where the curse leaves off and Hollywood begins…
Way back in 2018, when I had just arrived in the sunny Loire region of France for the first semester of my Erasmus exchange, I picked up the ebook of Emily M. Danforth’s first novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, and promptly fell in love with the witty writing and gritty characters. Three years on from that, Plain Bad Heroines is one of my most anticipated releases of the year, not only for its intriguing synopsis and glowing reviews, but also because I’ve been dying to read more of Emily M. Danforth’s gorgeous writing! I was so lucky to be approved for an audiobook ARC and had to physically restrain myself from picking it up months before the actual release. It was much to my disappointment, then, that I ended up finishing such a promising book with a solid sense of confusion and misunderstanding.
Plain Bad Heroines is a dual timeline behemoth of a book. The book opens in 1902 at Brookhants School for Girls where two girls in love, Flo and Clara, are tragically killed in a yellow jacket attack, throwing the school into the brink of closure. More than a hundred years later, we follow up and coming actress, Audrey, and well-loved celesbian, Harper Harper, working together on a new film – an adaptation of a book surrounding Flo and Clara and the rumoured Brookhants curse, written by Merritt who grew up there. The Goodreads synopsis of this book suggests that Plain Bad Heroines was to be some sort of a gothic-horror-esque novel following Flo and Clara leading up to their demise, alongside the film plot, but that was definitely not the case. I was extremely excited for sapphics in an early 20th-century boarding school setting and was sorely disappointed to find out that that was not the case here. Despite this, I could put that misunderstanding behind me, and I did enjoy the story of the school in 1902 that we did actually get.
Although my expectations were not met plotwise, my expectations for Emily M. Danforth’s writing were well and truly exceeded! This book was so unbelievably atmospheric and Danforth’s writing felt so lush and beautiful. Sometimes when listening to audiobooks I don’t feel fully connected to the story as I would when reading a physical or ebook copy, but that certainly was not the case here, and I think the wonderful narrator also had a part to play in that. The type of horror in this book is not the jumpscare, constantly on edge kind that you can find in books such as Into the Drowning Deep, but instead is something sticky and heavy that lingers on your clothes and in your hair even when you think you’re finally free of it. Much like what the characters come across in the book it’s like a constant crooning of a swarm of wasps that are just out of sight, and the thick, cloying smell of rotting apples everywhere you turn, and it was truly a delight to read.
The characters were another aspect of the book I really enjoyed. Our three present day main characters, Harper, Audrey and Merritt, were all so different, and at times jarring, and they worked so well. Harper Harper (yes, that is her name) is a well loved celesbian, think Kristen Stewart type character, who is so enthusiastic about everything and is all about living in the moment. Audrey is an up-and-coming child actress who has finally got her big break, but still feels overshadowed by her mother’s own fame. And Merritt, the author of the book that the film is being based on, is a standoffish, brusque character who you can count on to speak her mind. Their dynamics throughout the book were constantly evolving and I really enjoyed where they ended up at the end of the book. Our 1902 perspectives, the headmistress of the school, Libbie, and her companion, Alex, were just as enjoyable, if not more so. Their relationship was fraught and yet so full of love, and I really felt that both of them deserved better than they got! Adding onto this, there is an omniscient narrator telling the whole story. I know in the finished copy there are footnotes, though I’m not sure they were included in the audiobook, but from what I’ve heard they’re rather amusing and I can’t wait to read the physical copy to get the full experience! Moreover, almost all the characters of any importance in this book are queer – you could probably count all the cishet characters in this book on one hand, and I loved that about the book!
The plot is extremely intriguing. Because it’s such a large book, I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoiling something, but I enjoyed trying to figure out the curse alongside the rest of the characters. That being said, after finishing the book, when everything was meant to have been revealed, I found myself so confused as to what had actually happened. I don’t know if this was because I listened to the audiobook or not, but I still could not explain to you what the curse actually was, and if there was anything magical or paranormal about it at all (if anyone can explain it to me, I’d be very much indebted to them). I also felt that the plot regarding Audrey, Merritt and Harper was building up and building up into some kind of explosive conclusion but it just trickled into nothing – it ended so abruptly and nothing felt resolved.
Despite that, I did enjoy the book, and perhaps after a re-read where I can fully digest everything that is happening, alongside all of the footnotes and illustrations, my rating might end up being much higher. I do still really recommend this book, it’s a fantastic horror debut that I think would be the perfect read for the height of Summer if you want the atmosphere to feel all that more realistic!