Disclaimer: The Write Reads and NetGalley provided me an e-ARC of the novel, Bad Habits by Flynn Meaney in exchange of an honest review.
Summary I got from Goodreads:
Hilarious, bold, sparky and surprising, this is the funniest feminist book you’ll read all year.
Alex is a rebel from the tip of her purple fauxhawk to the toes of her biker boots. She’s tried everything she can think of to get expelled from her strict Catholic boarding school. Nothing has worked so far – but now, Alex has a new plan.
Tired of the sexism she sees in every corner of St Mary’s, Alex decides to stage the school’s first ever production of The Vagina Monologues. Which is going to be a challenge, as no one else at St Mary’s can even bear to say the word ‘vagina’ out loud . . .
Author’s Bio, generously provided by The Write Reads:
Flynn Meaney is the author of The Boy Recession and Bloodthirsty. She studied marketing and French at the University of Notre Dame, where she barely survived the terrifying array of priests and nuns, campus ghosts, and bone-crushing athletes who inspired Bad Habits. Since completing a very practical MFA in Poetry, she works for a French company and travels often between New York (when she’s in the mood for bagels) and Paris (when she’s in the mood for croissants).
The 5-Minute Book Review (if you aren’t in the mood for a long post)
Alex Heck, The Unreliable Narrator
The book being narrated in first person perspective has a lot of emphasis on Alex, a self-proclaimed feminist, being that “bad bitch” and often times, it appears as if she was trying so hard not to fit in in St Mary’s, her Catholic boarding school–as if she was trying to convince the reader that she, Alex, was a certified bad-ass and, by doing so, convince herself that she actually was. I posit that it works the other way around as well. Perhaps, by trying to convince herself that she was this persona she created, she could make people around her believe that she wasn’t just a regular student who blindly followed the strict rules enforced in St. Mary’s. After all, being different is a one widely used fiction trope, and Alex wants to assert her individuality in St. Mary’s while abiding the tenets of what she identifies as feminism.
Alex Heck is a good example of an unreliable narrator, a picaro, and I’m going to break down her subjectivity in three parts: language, created persona, and view on Feminism.
Vulgar may not be the right word to describe Alex’s chosen language. Taking in the setting of the story, St. Mary’s, a school Alex describes as rigid when it comes to rules may they be dress code, curfew, or extracurricular activities, it is not a surprise that our rebel protagonist proclaims her uniqueness by dropping the word vagina. What impact does Alex want? She may be trying to educate anyone who’d listen to her about the female genitalia or she is in it- the habit I mean, not the vagina- for the shock factor but certainly, that doesn’t make her vulgar, right? It so happens that it appears so because she is in a Catholic boarding school where flowery words are used in place of vagina.
The novelty wears off, however, after seeing the ‘V’ word mentioned at least twice in a chapter along with the motorcycle boots she is clearly fixated in. The readers already know that she doesn’t pull her punches in her graphic descriptions so why the insistence? Does she think she will get expelled because of the ‘V’ and ‘F’ bombs and cusses? Is it perhaps to strengthen the belief that she is an open-minded, more experienced feminist? Or is it to provide a foundation, a twist, for what’s going to happen in Chapter 21? My impression, and I may be totally judgmental or wrong here, is she simply wants to say “I, being a feminist, am superior than you because I can say these things that you wouldn’t dare say and do things that you wouldn’t do.”
Apart from deliberately choosing the words that will make her stand out from the otherwise unexciting world she is in, Alex also has the habit of putting words in Mary Kate’s mouth. I understand that best friends may have similar manners and expressions but Mary Kate’s outbursts during the worst moments of her scenes in the novel sound remarkably similar to how Alex phrases her expressions. In fact, the only time Alex regards Mary Kate as an equal is when the latter talks down to a guy and shouts the word- yep, you guessed it, “vagina” in a stadium full of spectators.
With Alex’s choice of language is the creation of her persona. She wants to be identified as strong, independent, and most importantly different. Yet, she struggles because she believes her society, St. Mary’s, wants to squash her fire. What does she do? She takes a leap from wanting to get expelled to wanting to become a pinnacle of change at school. She deliberately fights it, head-on, with staging The Vagina Monologues, painting her recruitment banners with a graphic representation of a vagina, and refusing to make way for the school’s marching band (Get your copy of the Bad Habits to know if Alex actually succeeds in these scenes).
I do admit Alex’s outburst in the tampon scene has made me chuckle since it makes a lot of sense:
Her description of the scene is a classic picaro– an unreliable narrator who likes to exaggerate- a strong female character who has left a lasting impression on some hockey players but Alex has played it well. She makes a valid point that purchasing a box of tampons is not different from buying crisps and must be considered normal.
Alex’s persona cracks when she, for all the open-legged puns and adjectives she uses to describe her day to day experience in St. Mary’s, decides to keep mum about her intimate relations with Pat, driving it to a corner with only a lip lock and a line about a thong. Alex has openly discussed her sexual relations before. Not only to the readers does she hide this but I can’t recall her talking about their relationship or the lack thereof with Mary Kate, her best friend. There may be several reasons why: first, she doesn’t think sex is that important, second, she doesn’t want Mary Kate to know to avoid judgment, third, she thinks what she and Pat have is intimate enough to warrant secrecy. We know the first is not the answer, the second is questionable since her persona isn’t afraid of being judged, leaving us the third option. I can’t deny that the author or editor’s choice to leave that out of the novel might have played a big part *coughs in YA* but taking the text as it is, wouldn’t it be more of Alex’s persona to kiss and tell yet she does not. What she shares in her internal monologue instead are those moments like exchanging messages, working on a common goal, spending her time with Pat and thinking he is attractive- all these coming from a rebel who spends her time scorning at the idea of a pure relationship.
View on Feminism
Should I put the blame on her age like any person from the older generation attributing the mistakes of the younger generation to their lack of experience? Feminism is not just about reading and staging The Vagina Monologues and Alex, with her lack of exposure to other key concepts of feminism, does not recognize this until the end of the novel. What she fails to realize is that the amount of devotion she has for the monologues is comparable to the nuns’ and priests’ devotion for the school rules, Mary Kate’s earnestness in search for her one love while maintaining good grades, and the hockey team’s drive to win the interschool competition.
Her perspective of feminism and Catholicism is black and white, two opposing forces that reject each other. It appears that for Alex, feminism begins and ends with being proud of, taking care of, and talking about one’s vagina. She refuses to acknowledge the strength and wisdom of her peers, even stoops down to belittle Katie Casey, a prim and proper lady, who turns out to be very comfortable with her own skin. Even, Mary Kate, who Alex calls brilliant and intelligent to cajole her in staging The Vagina Monologues, has been reduced to nothing but a girl who wants to have a boy friend by the end of the semester. Due to her narrow ‘You don’t pay attention to the Feminist Club so you aren’t feminist’ perception, she has confined the women in St. Mary’s into categories, taking for granted what the essentials are in feminism: equality between men and women and the women’s freedom to choose their own interests regardless of their status.
My Thoughts on Bad Habits and its Unreliable Narrator
YA readers such as myself have already learned to anticipate bildungsroman in novels. That is what we are here for, the ultimate twist, the big character development. Alex, being the picaro narrator of Bad Habits provides just that. As a character, despite being hilarious at times, she may not be my cup of tea. I certainly wasn’t rooting for her and it was difficult and tiresome to empathize with her objectives. However, reading between the lines, deciphering what she wants to say as opposed to how she delivers, I find that the novel has a good foundation. The presence of the other characters like the charismatic Pat, the cool-headed Katie Casey and the multi-faceted Mary Kate has made the entire novel entertaining and Alex’s epiphany worth the wait.