Hello friends! I’m breaking our usual schedule a bit by giving you an extra post today, outside of our usual schedule, but I couldn’t not write a review for this magnificent novel. I really hope you’ll enjoy this review and that I can convince you to pick up Plain Bad Heroines or discuss it with you if you’ve already read it. Without further ado, let us jump into this review.
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.
From the minute I heard of Plain Bad Heroines I was intrigued. Seeing the early reviews convinced me that I needed to get my hands on this stunning novel as soon as possible. I did just that, and I’m ecstatic to report that not only is it a horror novel filled with powerful sapphic characters, but it also happens to be one of the most intricately plotted books I’ve ever read. Unparalleled is the word I’m thinking of, which is high praise from someone who changes her favorites all the time.
I think the most memorable part of Plain Bad Heroines is the novels’ excellent cast, most of whom are complex, morally grey characters, both in the past and in the present timelines. It took me a bit of time to fall for these characters, as some of their faults were hard to ignore. They make rash, stupid decisions, and sometimes they can’t seem to figure out what is right in front of their eyes. They are mean, get defensive, and they lie, even to each other… but these are exactly the qualities that made them feel real and raw. I love morally gray characters that take some time to understand, and I especially love it when I can’t make up my mind about them, which was the case here.
“Too much had happened that night, too much had happened before that night, and so too much climbed into bed with them, sat heavily upon them, and kept them up and thinking, even if they did not say the things they were thinking to each other.”
Speaking of being unable to make up my mind – being confused and unsure of what was going on was a feeling we readers had to endure, right alongside the characters. I kept questioning if the hauntings were real or fake, both in the past and in the present, and while the novel gives us some answers, I wouldn’t necessarily call them conclusive. Plain Bad Heroines is the kind of book you can have long conversations about as you are bound to disagree on what to make of the events and the characters of the book. In other words, it is the very best kind of book.
“Eleanor Faderman knew many books. But never before had she read a book that seemed to know her.”
With regards to the hauntings and indeed, with regards to the setting as a whole, I need to highlight how wonderfully atmospheric this novel is. The descriptions are vivid, to the extent that I felt myself being transferred into the novel, which was an especially striking experience during the more frightening scenes. This and the lack of answers added up to a story that was incredibly engaging and easy to get lost in. You might not know this, but the novel also contains some illustrations, and these were also remarkably helpful when I was envisioning how the setting looked.
I understand that a 600+ pages long novel might seem intimidating – I even relate to that, I’m always scared of lengthy novels – however, I guarantee you that you’ll fly through Plain Bad Heroines if you decide to pick it. At no point did I feel like the story was dragging on, and I’d overall call this one of the best reading experiences I’ve had this year.. maybe ever. Simply put, this is an excellent novel that deserves all the praise it’s gotten – and more! It’s suspenseful, atmospheric, and even spooky at parts, and I was captivated by its big cast of characters. I can’t recommend Plain Bad Heroines enough, I really can’t.
Have you read this novel? If yes, what did you think of it? Do you plan to read it? What’s a complex, intricately plotted novel you *love*?