Luck­i­est Girl Alive – Jes­sica Knoll

The Star (St. Lucia) - - BOOK REVIEW - By Vir­ginia Pasley This book is avail­able at the bookYard. Visit us to­day or email us at bookyard@stlu­ci­as­ or call the Star 450-7827 for more de­tails.

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 present­day 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.

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