‘Plain Bad Heroines’ is a complex novel set across two timelines: the early 20th century, where both students and staff at Brookhants School for Girls are captivated by a new, audacious book by Mary Maclane; and the present day, where a film is being made about the events at Brookhants over a hundred years ago. Told by a mysterious narrator, it switches back and forth between the timelines, emphasising the parallels between the past and modern day events. The comparisons and clever interspersing of gothic elements are enjoyable, but the exceptionally ambiguous ending isn’t as satisfying as it could be.
Brookhants, an exclusive school in Massachusetts, was set up by Libbie Brookhants after her husband’s death. With the help of her close friend – and lover – Alex, it became a huge success – until the death of two students, Clara and Flo. Thus began a series of events ending in the school’s permanent closure, passing into legend – until a precocious young writer, Merritt, decided to write a book about the tragedies at Brookhants. The book was subsequently optioned, and two actresses at very different stages of their careers – Harper Harper and Audrey Wells – were signed on to star. These characters make up our plain bad heroines – in the past timeline, Clara, Flo, and their classmate Eleanor, along with Principal Brookhants and Alex; in the present timeline, Harper Harper, Audrey, and Merritt.
Each character is complex, and the relationships between them are highlights. I especially liked Libbie Brookhants – a bold and independent woman never given the freedom to be as independent as she’d like – and Audrey Wells, a child star struggling to grow out of the shadow of her infamous mother and show off any talent of her own. The relationship between Libbie and Alex in a time when such things were not accepted is brilliantly portrayed, and it’s fascinating seeing how each of them view it – even when those views don’t align. The interplay between Harper Harper, Audrey, and Merritt is also excellent, although I did feel that the changes in Audrey and Merritt weren’t always written with the subtlety of the others.
Unusually for a book with multiple timelines, both the past and present stories are equally strong. Jumping between them never feels unnatural or out of place, and there are some truly beautiful moments of mirroring. The only weakness in either timeline is the pacing. This is a long book, with a great deal of build-up before each new event happens, and I feel like it could be edited down without losing any of the gorgeous atmosphere and tension.
My main issue with this book, however, is the ending. The past timeline is more-or-less wrapped up – not everything is answered, but then some mystery adds to the atmosphere – but the present just ends with no resolution. The reader is left to decide for themselves what happens to the plain bad heroines – which will suit some readers well, but I want a few more answers. The ending also leaves the reader knowing a lot more than the protagonists, which is interesting, but definitely a situation more could be done with.
Overall, this is a clever piece of fiction that straddles the boundary between literary and gothic. It’s filled with sapphic relationships and intriguing characters, and the writing is gorgeous, evoking beautiful imagery across its multiple timelines. Recommended for fans of gothic literature, dark academia, and stories with real atmosphere.
Thanks to NetGalley and Borough Press for providing me with an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Borough Press
Hardback: 4th February 2021