Shoulda Coulda Book Review: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll


Time on to-read: About a year

Reason for not reading: The general amount of times that each and every review referred to this as a “great beach read!!!” or “wonderful summer book!!” as well as it being like a “cross between” about a thousand popular recent things marketed to women. Way to make this book sound as run-of-the-mill, copycat-of-a-thousand-other-books-released-just-before-summer-break as possible, people. Didn’t leave me feeling a great need to rush out the door towards this plot.

Reason for finally picking up: I read lots of reviews as well as write them, guys! And you kept insisting that this come up to the top of my feed! You are persuasive.

Short Form Verdict: As advertised, but better than you’d ever expect, given that. Deserves ten times of a better cover, and a hundred times better reviews. This book hasn’t found its whole audience yet, methinks. I’ll explain.

There are many ways we recognize characters. The first, we learn as we learn to love to read, before we can read, sometimes: characters are like ourselves. (Oh my god- I have brown hair and a brother too! It’s amazing! Do I have a twin inside this paper??) As we grow and become slightly less narcissistic, we recognize characters who remind us of people we know well, and then less well. Then, we read and read some more, and we encounter characters who are like other characters we love, then they get grouped into types, into genres, and as we grow still older and more pretentious (or perhaps just go through our Joseph Campbell phase and/or get into Restoration Comedy) into archetypes and symbols and thematic representations. From there, as we inevitably get more cynical (or experienced, let’s call it that) we find the people-as-plot-necessities, characters as wish-fulfillment author stand-ins and a thousands other types that have very little to do with the interest of the story.

And of course, there are the sometimes well-done and many, many (many) less well done amalgamations of these things that wind up plastered together into some sort of nightmare Frankenstein of authorial intentions, absolutely terrifying to contemplate as independent actual people loosed on the world (lord, can you imagine independent decisions being made by any, or all, of the Brooding YA hero types of any one of a thousand epic fantasies? Bad enough a fictional heroine must suffer them- that’s the apocalypse right there. If nothing else, that’s another thousand Trump voters helping to ensure the End of All Things).

I think the reason that a lot of people don’t like this book is that their experience has lead them to see its main characters as representative of this nightmarish character type, that, in their mind, belongs to the realm of monsters and poorly written failures, and  certainly not any of the more benign character types they can safely identify with.

I mean, if that’s your truth, you do you, people. I happen to think that, for many of you, that’s probably an enormous amount of bullshit.

So, this book centers around TifAni FaNelli, who is, as the book opens growing up on the outskirts of Philadelphia, just finishing eighth grade at your standard-issue Catholic school, which lands her in standard-issue Catholic school problems. To prevent her from further problems (and, one presumes, the ultimate in Catholic family nightmares, the “vacation abroad” for nine months), her social-climbing, class-envious, money grubbing  mother enrolls her in a Main Line private school. There, of course, she meets the scions of Old Money and Real Class, learns to be ashamed of everyone she’s ever known (including the awful name that I can’t understand why people don’t get is deliberately the worst thing in the history of life, to represent just how declasse and to-die-embarrassing she finds every aspect of herself, but I digress)… and the rest, of course, is history.

The story that forms the base of this book seems, at first, like a typical tale of high school social acrobatics, learning the landscape and jockeying for position, and all the accompanying humiliations that come with it, especially the girl-on-girl aggressiveness and how deeply that cuts. This part can be, admittedly, kind of mediocre and Mean Girls ripoff-y: “…pretty girls also had to have a self-deprecating sense of humor and point out when they had a blistering pimple…to assure the other girls they weren’t interested in the role of man-eating minx. Because if the others sensed any level of deliberate prowess, they’d end you, and you could forget about the guy you wanted. The snarling force of a pack of girls could wither the most screaming boner.”

But that doesn’t mean it can’t also be poignant: “…I was glad of a moment alone to collect myself, the tears I forced back, finding another channel in my throat, dissolving into a thin salty drip that left me feeling raw and burned in the torturous days that followed. When that finally cleared up, I was left with something much worse. Something that to this day seems to lie in wait, pouncing right at a moment that joy or confidence dares to dance. The memory that (spoiler)… and he had laughed at me. You think you’re happy? You think you have anything to be proud of?-it always taunts-Ha! Remember this?-That usually sets me right. Reminds me what a piece of shit I am.”

So while some of this plot can seem run-of-the-mill at first, there’s a powerful rage behind it that makes it compelling, fast. Something Big Happened to TifAni in high school, something that’s only gradually made clear as she tells her story in pauses between scenes from her present-day life ten years later. TifAni, who now calls herself Ani, has this super glamorous life of a glossy magazine job with name-brand recognition, and the name-brand clothes and huge fuck-off ring given to her by her name-brand fiancee from the oldest money you like. And of course this sounds exactly like the romcoms ladies are taught to worship-quite deliberately so. She’s performatively constructed it to be exactly that way- like millions of others- she’s just more open about assembling her fuck-off armor in the face of the world.

(“Luke says the wedding is in Nantucket, Ani. Why there?”

Because of the privilege inherent in the location, Whitney. Because Nantucket transcends all classes, all areas of the country. Go to South Dakota and tell some sad smug housewife you grew up on the Main Line, and she doesn’t know she’s supposed to be impressed. Tell her you summer on Nantucket- be sure to verb it like that-and she knows who the fuck she’s dealing with. That’s why, Whitney.”)


And that’s exactly what this all was. Armor. In her eyes, impenetrable armor. I think the part that focuses on present-day Ani is the absolute best part of this book. Knoll just lets herself loose on this Ani, the hard, cold, eagle-eyed measurement stick of a person that she’s become. While I know this is the person that put a lot of other people off, I think that you’ve got to put aside your beach-read expectations of hanging out with a girlfriend or whatever it is you thought you were getting in this book and see what she’s doing for what it is, which is a far more interesting thing. She’s someone who went through what TifAni did and survived, and the person you yourself might be willing to become (or not become) in order to make that happen. It’s dark and not pleasant, but man, you can see the gears working hard.

(…’I’m so lucky to be able to stay home with my children every day…Did your mother work?’

‘She didn’t.’ But she should have. She should have let go of her little kept-housewife fantasy and contributed to our household. I can’t say it would have made her happier, but we didn’t have the luxury of considering happiness. We were broke, Mom signing up for new credit cards every other month to finance her Bloomingdale’s excursions, while the shoddy Sheetrock walls of our dramatic McMansion went rank with mildew that we couldn’t “afford” to have removed. But you’re right, Whitney, she was lucky she got to be with me every day.”

….”‘I just can’t bring myself to ever order chicken at a restaurant. All that arsenic!’ Stay-at-home mom who was also a fan of The Dr. Oz Show! My favorite kind! 

‘Arsenic?’ I held my hand to my breast, the concern on my face an indication for her to go on. At Nell’s recommendation, I’d read The Art of WarMy favorite strategy is to feign inferiority and encourage my enemy’s arrogance.”

And yeah…true, sometimes, she can be a little hilarious. That can be one of the only positive effects trauma has. It sharpens you, it makes you as clear as glass about some things  that others can’t see (while of course desperately wrong about other things). There’s benefits even in the worst things, and I think people don’t like to face that.

So yeah, sure. This is a beach-book sort of subject, and there’s plenty in here for people who are looking for a thrill, and yeah, there’s a big reveal (more than one), and it’s totally horrifying and you’ll gasp and turn the pages. Sure- but just remember,  don’t expect to just disaster-tourist yourself through this- you’re going to have to see some of the less pleasant things that happen to people who survive. And how it’s sometimes far more complicated and, in its way, worse than the people who don’t make it. I’d challenge readers who find only “ugliness” here to look past that and see why it’s there, and see, even before things start to change for Ani over the course of the book, if there isn’t something to admire there, even if it doesn’t look like how Nice Girl courage is supposed to look. I think it’s better than that, and even more gripping to consider than all the slasher/nightly news scare stories you could possibly dream up.

And because of that I think that this book deserves to be marketed far beyond people looking for Gone Girl-y beach reads with a slight edge. I think there would be some fans among people who like noir, people who like character studies, even among the literary fiction crowd. I think that because of its cover and the marketing language around it it may never break out of the niche where’s been left, which means you’re going to get some mixed reviews of people who got a lot more than they bargained for, and who can’t recognize the people they thought were going to be here, and therefore can see only monsters.