Stephanie Jones: Book Review - Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Publish Date
Friday, 12 June 2015, 11:18AM
By Stephanie Jones

It’s already earning comparisons with Gillian Flynn’s genre-defining psychological thriller Gone Girl, and on the face of it, Jessica Knoll’s debut novel Luckiest Girl Alive is a worthy successor: a beautiful, accomplished female protagonist and narrator whose reliability is questionable; a mind-bending plot that employs time to maximum dramatic effect; a wry and biting style that betrays a misanthropic worldview. Like the ‘gone girl’ Amy Dunne, TifAni FaNelli (really) is too clever by half for her milieu, and goes to considerable trouble to appear untroubled and to disguise her almost boundless contempt – until the dam breaks.

Unlike Flynn’s sociopathic villain, Knoll’s woman is something of a threatened creature. Though it is not clear immediately whether she deserves to be the object of pity, fear or another base emotion, at 28 she is both proudly self-made and facing a precipice.

Piece by piece, she has constructed a life to be envied, having spent the six years since her post-college arrival in New York City undertaking a self-administered “extended master’s program in how to appear effortlessly moneyed.” A critical step was dropping a syllable from her first name and insisting on the pronunciation of the remainder as Ah-nee, not Annie. She has learned to distinguish Chloe from Chanel and is on a first-name basis with the hostesses at the places to be seen. The metamorphosis will be complete when she marries her high-finance, perfectly bred fiancé and becomes Ani Harrison.

From page one, Knoll drives her story full-tilt, and the sense of dread arising from her construction of Ani’s shifting psychological state – normal anxiety or incipient insanity? – is infectious. Ani is so close to the brass ring that will remove her once and for all from “morbidly middle-class” Pennsylvania, but she is spiteful, insecure and obsessive, and consumed with horror that what promised to be the end of the struggle is nowhere in sight: “I thought that by twenty-eight I could stop trying to prove myself and relax already. But this fight just gets bloodier with age.”

Allusions to violence and gore are not accidental. The catalyst for upheaval is Ani’s agreement to participate in a documentary about a life-changing event that took place at her tony high school when she was 14. Ani was a central actor, and the narrative swings between the present and the early weeks of her high school years.

For any reader who has survived high school, let alone the hyper-privileged private variety, Knoll’s version, The Bradley School, may trigger flashbacks. With tantalizing languor Knoll peels back the layers of Ani’s artifice, shows her as both loathsome and pitiful, and portrays a life riven by the events of a single day. The adult siren is a product of teenage victimhood, and Knoll parses complicated questions of sexual conduct and consent in an academic environment every bit as hostile and political as a parliamentary debating chamber.

Another commonality between the Flynn and Knoll novels: a film adaptation of Luckiest Girl Alive will be produced by Reese Witherspoon, whose company was a force behind David Fincher’s big-screen version of Gone Girl. This is good news for anyone who likes their movies uneasy, nuanced and thought-provoking, and meanwhile, there is always the source material, which presents a thrillingly rancorous view of the human condition and marks Knoll as a writer of acute imagination and prowess.

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