***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
The prose and language of this book are delightfully brainy. Frankie's voice is snarky and bright, but in a way that is believable, given her circumstances (a reasonably wealthy girl in an elite boarding school on the level of Exeter and Andover). I appreciated that the main theme of the book is about equality--a girl recognizing that her strength and worth are inside of her, not outside. She's perturbed that she's noticed by boys for the first time as a sophomore, simply because she has grown and filled out over the summer. She sees that her value to the cool senior boys (and the sparse girlfriends who are allowed to share their circle) is based to some extent on her wit, but also on her looks, and on her behaving in a conforming way. Her project of furtively running the Order of the Basset Hound (a secret, all male club) by e-mail, pretending to be Alpha, one of the leaders, is a clever plot device and, well, clever on Frankie's part. So far so good.
For me, a problem arose when the author chose not to show Frankie trying any other alternatives to combat the "Old Boy" attitude she feels exists at the school and in society in general (even in her family). In fact she never did try to join the secret society just by asking (as her sister suggested). To keep her from seeming like she perhaps is obsessed (a possibility mentioned by her sister), I'd like to have seen Frankie try to go through normal channels and then get thwarted: she could have pointed out that her father was a Basset Hound, revealed that she knows about the book, bartered it for entry once she had found the book, threatened to expose them, start her own club that's inclusive...anything. I understand that she didn't want to alienate her new circle of friends, that she initially saw this as an anonymous way to make a point, but when she's finally getting good and pissed by the fact that her pranks aren't making anyone see her in a different light anyway, and that the Bassets themselves aren't comprehending the revolutionary message behind the pranks they're pulling under her direction, it surprised me that Lockhart didn't give Frankie the oomph to challenge them outright. I struggle with whether this makes her a more believable, "young," protagonist--she genuinely doesn't want to lose her boyfriend, and she does revel in being part of the "in" crowd, and her feminism may just be budding but not fully formed--or whether it undermines a potentially healthier message: that you're not fighting this battle alone, you just need to search for friends who are sympathetic and energetic about the same causes.
I think Lockhart wanted to end with some ambiguity and bittersweetness--Frankie comes to terms with the fact that demanding equality isn't going to work with certain people (not even Matthew, the boy she's still in love with), and she's resigned to losing them--but in fact there's no clear reward for her struggle at all, and I think there should have been. This book has a clear message, despite being delightfully written on a prose level, about being true to yourself. And since there's no denying it's a "message book," I don't see why girl readers shouldn't be given the healthier message, "99% of the people you encounter won't like your dogged pursuit of equality, but 1% of them will become your dearest friends." Instead we're left with the feeling that Frankie is at least temporarily alone, devoid of both boys and girls who understand her. Does this risk teaching us that being morally correct means you're on your own? Aren't there in fact boys at her school who might appreciate her for exactly who she is? (If I were a boy, would I take offense at their absence in the book?) Is there's really not a single, bright kid who would adore Frankie for her strong personality rather than her new knockout figure? There are no potential girlfriends who want to pursue equality and feminist causes with her--who understand and laud her passion?
Everyone in this book besides Frankie seems to either not recognize the harm of the status quo (the Bassets), accept it with resignation (Zada), or think it's not worth worrying about (Trish). I was really hoping that Trish would continue to be the true, staunch friend who understood Frankie's quest once she learned about it. I thought Lockhart was leading up to that by having Trish and Star debate the meaning of the pranks, with Trish getting the closest in terms of understanding. But Trish is clearly put into a box at the end: the box containing all the women who see they're not valued equally and for themselves, but choose not to get up in arms about it. And even Zada, who chose Berkeley over Harvard and is a bright young woman functioning in society, who arguably plays the role of the clear-headed adult in this story, feels a little detached from Frankie's outrage, like Frankie is overreacting. Shouldn't Frankie have had an ally? Should Porter, or Trish, or Alpha seen the importance of what she did (Alpha comes closest maybe, with his conciliatory e-mail)? Should someone have acknowledged her strength so that readers could acknowledge it?
Finally, there would have been many small ways that Frankie could have grown that would have been subtle and empowering. She notices profound flaws in her relationship with Matthew--for instance that he doesn't reach out to her friends or take an interest in her activities--but she never confronts him with it. She has specific complaints that she holds inside, going along with the crowd, feeling underappreciated, but we really never see her get her footing and tell her guy friends what's bothering her. It's not the same to say, "You don't value me as your equal" once, at the end of a relationship, than to speak up often: "I don't eat garlic knots because I don't like them, and it says nothing about me as a woman." In the end, we see her thinking to herself, "Matthew's not the guy for me, because he didn't see me for who I am," rather than speaking out for herself.
A note on the narrator: this is primarily in third-person past (with a switch to third-person present at the end), but the narrator is intrusive--even referring to herself (himself) as "I" at one point. I found it a little confusing. Is it Frankie herself, speaking in third person? Maybe it's not Frankie, given the moralizing at the end, and "this girl will go far" implication?
Minor plot inconsistency: Matthew is the one who tells Frankie that the cafeteria has no fresh vegetables because of a building donation by a powerful alum who runs a canned-food conglomerate. He says that he tried to use the newspaper to drum up interest in the cause, with no success because no one reads the paper. And then Frankie says near the end that no one was willing to fight this battle but her, that Matthew could have used the newspaper and chose not to.