The Homestead is a B&B of a different kind. Where most guest houses provide rest and relaxation for tourists, Anne-Marie Entwhistle’s place provides a haven for Heroines in distress: Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Scarlett O’Hara, Franny Glass. When things become too much for them at the climax of their novels, they escape (somehow), and appear at the Homestead for a few days’ rest with Anne-Marie and her teenage daughter Penny. Then they disappear, back into the pages of their novel, to live out their predetermined fates, however happy or unhappy those may be.
But The Heroines, by Eileen Favorite, is not actually about those literary heroines, except in glimpses. It’s about Anne-Marie and Penny, the heroines of their own stormy story. The book takes place in 1974, as Nixon is resigning amid scandal. Penny, thirteen, takes off into the woods — a forbidden zone — after a fight with her mother. There she meets a real, live Villain, also escaped from the pages of a novel, come to take his Heroine back.
And here’s where things get confused (if they weren’t already.) Penny’s sympathies lie with Conor, the Villain, whom she seems to find sexually attractive and threatening in equal measure, so she agrees to help him. When she comes home, her mother has called the police (because her adolescent daughter has been gone… what… a couple of hours? In 1974?) Even though Penny insists that the man she met didn’t touch her, they force a rape kit on her, which we get in loving detail (really? In 1974? Really?). And then Penny’s mother, who is portrayed as smart and loving, agrees that in order to “keep Penny safe,” she should be committed to a psych ward, “just for a couple of days.” Would anyone do this? She was supposedly railroaded into it by something about insurance, but it was so cardboard-thin. None of the characters were fleshed out — the doctors, the nurses, the heroines, the Villain, not even the mother.
Penny’s adventures in the ward, being drugged and restrained, being rescued, and withdrawing from Valium and so forth, were moot for me at that point. The way she got into her problem was so contrived I could hardly stand it, and the way out was contrived, too. There was scarcely a person I could understand, since the motivations were so unclear. There was no chance for her relationship with her mother to develop. The “big reveal” at the ending was hardly a surprise, since it had been hooting and hollering at me from the first twenty pages. In the end, I wished that the story had been about the Heroines — about what it was like to live with them, and talk to them off-duty, and find Jane Eyre rummaging through your linen closet.