E. Lockhart’s first novel since 2014’s We Were Liars—a tricky emotional thriller with a troubled heart and a secret—hits shelves next week, boasting an irresistible title and an intriguingly elliptical cover. Genuine Fraud is a psychological thriller that pays homage to genre classics such as Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. It opens on Jule, a girl on the run from some unnamed thing, and is told in reverse, each chapter uncovering another facet of what she’s hiding, how she got to where she is, and what, exactly, happened to her vanished best friend, a flighty heiress.
Lockhart excels at creating women who go against the grain. Here she is to discuss her own favorite “difficult” literary women.
I write stories of women whom other people label difficult. That’s a description that fits both my comedies (such as The Boyfriend List and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks) and my more recent psychological thrillers, We Were Liars and Genuine Fraud.
The titular heroine of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre speaks up for herself and gets locked up as her aunt attempts to squelch her spirit. She is a parallel figure to the madwoman she later learns about in Mr. Rochester’s attic—a difficult woman who has likewise been imprisoned to keep her quiet. The question of Brontë’s novel, it might be argued, is how to find a life path that will keep you out of the locked room or the attic given that you must stand up for yourself and that nobody will like it when you do.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper is about a woman already confined to the attic, supposedly for a rest cure. She may or may not be mentally ill. Perhaps she has just been difficult. Perhaps she has just been angry. Perhaps she merely stood up for herself. In any case, she cannot adapt to her confinement by accepting it, and yet she cannot escape it either.
Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth shows a difficult woman who is masterfully adept at pleasing others but only up to a certain point. She cannot completely comply with what her social circle asks of her, and yet she cannot find a way to live without compliance.
Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie shows a woman furiously inventing herself as an unconventional role model for her students. She exists on a border between self-actualization and lunacy.
Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea brings the woman in Rochester’s attic to center stage. Rhys reframes what we label difficult or even crazy, forcing us to see not only how men want women to behave but how colonizers want the colonized to behave and to think about marriage as something of a colonial project.
I am putting myself in ridiculously fancy company here. After all, I write reasonably commercial novels published for young adults, and these are greats of literature written in English. Still, they are my loves, and I owe them.
I am likewise indebted to a bunch of stories we might call lowbrow: the highly sexualized and yet nonetheless awesome difficult women of All About Eve, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, La Femme Nikita, Batman Returns, Salt, Jessica Jones, and many more.
My contemporaries continue this conversation in stunning form. I have huge admiration for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire, Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? I just finished Gabrielle Zevin’s effervescent and angry Young Jane Young.
In YA, I love Sherri Smith’s Orleans, Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species, Sara Farizan’s If You Could Be Mine, and Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona, among many others. On my TBR list: The Power, by Naomi Alderman, and, of course, Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay.
Genuine Fraud hits shelves September 5, and is available for pre-order now.