Luckiest Girl Alive: A Novel
- By Jessica Knoll
- Simon & Schuster
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Virginia Pasley
- July 14, 2015
A trauma from her past chases a bride-to-be, and the reader, to a gory end.
Readers will tread Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive nervously. We know a violent and disturbing revelation is coming. On the very first page, TifAni FaNelli is examining a knife and idly wondering what would happen if she stabbed her fiancé, Luke. She imagines bystanders’ reactions and how reporters would “swarm the scene.” Of course, this is not a typical thought when registering for silverware before your wedding.
We soon understand that TifAni — who started going by just “Ani” (pronounced “AH-nee”) in college — has a trauma in her past. We know it is violent and notorious — so much so that college admissions staff knew her name even before reading her essay. We know her best friend jokes about buying a gun, then awkwardly apologizes, and that her blue-blooded fiancé doesn’t like it when anyone brings up the tony prep school she attended — the Bradley School, in the storied Main Line neighborhood of Philadelphia.
We know she tried to reinvent herself — leaving behind both her creatively spelled given name and her upbringing. In a less affluent section of Philadelphia, she grew up where families, whose money was not at all old (nor consistently available), would lease shiny BMWs and build McMansions, later to be mortgaged.
Ani is constantly aware of how she doesn’t measure up to the old-money families she discovered at Bradley, and which she continues to seek out and emulate as a magazine writer in New York City. Like when she notices her school friend Arthur, who knows to pass both salt and pepper shakers at the same time. She sees it must be important that her mother-in-law-to-be never says, “Nice to meet you” — only “Nice to see you.”
“I was horrified, wondering how many people I’d tipped off to my pedantic rearing with all my lewd ‘Nice to meet you’s’ over the years,” Ani remembers. “The beauty of good breeding — for those lucky enough to enter this world with the golden rib — is that it’s almost impossible to authentically replicate, and poseurs will always out themselves, usually in some spectacularly embarrassing way.”
The book’s chapters alternate between present-day life for Ani in New York — where she is preparing for her wedding and for an HBO documentary about the unnamed trauma — and her memories of her first months at Bradley. One of her early experiences as a naïve newcomer to the school is so horrifying it easily accounts for a lifetime of nervousness, insecurity, and sleepless nights. But we know there is more to come and can only wait for the next hundred or so pages with mounting dread to find out what possibly could surpass that first incident.
Teenage TifAni is smart and socially savvy in some ways — realizing just how to play her first encounter with the popular set in order to win their trust — but in way over her head in others. Her peers pegged her as a troublemaker at her all-girls Catholic middle school for little reason beyond the fact that her body developed before her classmates’.
She is assumed to be knowing and worldly — but when her new popular friends realize how sheltered she really is, they do not hesitate to take advantage of her. She also keeps one foot in a less popular social group that welcomed her on her first day — but it becomes unclear whether she will be safe with them, either, as time goes by.
Both TifAni and her older self, Ani, can be caustic and vindictive, making the other students’ cruelty at Bradley that much more depressing for readers to see how quickly she is outmatched by them. At one point, TifAni tries to explain to adults how normal such cruelty is:
“This was how we spoke to each other. We were all young and cruel. One time a freshman JV soccer player choked on an orange slice on the bus ride to an away game, and, instead of helping him, or even displaying the least bit of alarm, Dean and Peyton and all the guys laughed at the way the blood rushed to his face and his eyes bugged out of his head…For weeks afterward, the guys regaled us with this story, over and over…while the poor kid who choked on the orange stared at the lunch table, trying not to cry.”
Knoll keeps the tension tight and never tries too hard to make Ani or TifAni sympathetic to readers. At no point does Ani deny manipulating the people around her, but we still begin to feel sorry for someone so thoroughly convinced that manipulation is the only option, and that everyone around her has an angle, too. TifAni is just as judgmental and materialistic as her older self, but it’s hard to hate a girl who’s really just hoping to be invited over by friends before a dance to try on different outfits.
Although Luckiest Girl Alive could initially be mistaken for the kind of chick lit where the best outcome for the protagonist is hooking up with the right guy during a weekend in the Hamptons, it has more going on under the surface than we first perceive — and it has very little to do with the handsome fiancé. The characters’ secrets may be very bad, but the book’s hidden depths are good.
Virginia Pasley is a journalist currently working as the associate director of communications at the National Association of Federal Credit Unions in Arlington, VA.