As someone who spends nine months out of the year closely reading and studying text with high school students, I like a good page-turner during the summer months. I like to speed through my summer reading fare propelled by an interesting character and swift plot. So last week, I sought out Reese Witherspoon’s book club for help (hey, I like her as an actress and follow this club on Instagram, #rwbookclub); so, I selected Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. My attraction to this book was because of the cover’s haunting art and People Magazine’s claim that it is “the perfect page-turner.” Luckiest Girl Alive does live up to its promise of being engaging enough to make the pages turn, even if somewhat predictable, but it does not compare to the more complex female main characters and disturbing plot points in similar reads like Girl on the Train or Gone Girl.
The reader meets twenty-eight year old TifAni FaNelli (an annoying spelling that can be reduced to Ani for most of the novel), who on the surface has an enviable life: skinny, successful job at a fashion, and a handsome fiancé. Quickly, she contends that she is no “plucky heroine,” and she doesn’t disappoint. TifAni scorches the convention of creating a wedding registry by imaging the demise of her fiancé at the hands of the Shun knife she selected for her list. Or, she craves carbs in most chapters because she is starving herself to fit into her wedding dress by using a restrictive and trendy diet similar to Kate Middleton. I find these moments darkly comical jeering at the pressure felt by many brides-to-be. But, TifAni turns ruthless at times, especially in her interactions with co-workers or interns: “Eleanor perched on the edge of my desk. She was wearing a pair of white, wide-legged pants. . .There was my green ballpoint pen, cap off, idling on my desk. I nudged it with my elbow, inch by inch, until the inky head grazed the seam of Eleanor’s pants.” To cut down her rival, TifAni soils a pristine garment deliberately and proves her character to be calculated leaving the reader wondering what are her redeemable qualities.
The plot shifts between Ani’s life as she prepares for her wedding and flashbacks to her time in high school. The reader learns the source of TifAni’s cutthroat nature and conflict stems from a devastating past that befalls her at a private high school within the Main Line of Philadelphia. Ani FaNelli becomes sympathetic during these flashbacks as the reader discovers that her need for perfection and acceptance stems from traumatic events when she was fourteen. These troubling moments in high school shares TifAni’s physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at hands of more popular peers and a terrifying act of school violence. As a teacher, I struggle with the instances of bullying and degradation Knoll tackles in TifAni’s past. The cruelty of the social interactions and isolation of students who are new or different is represented well but bleakly. The lesson TifAni learns is to conceal her true self and to invent another identity, giving birth to the adult presented to the reader in the other chapters. Also, the English teacher, Mr. Larson, is ineffective in helping TifAni get support and as a result leaves teaching to pursue a career in finance. It is disappointing to see yet another static portrayal of an educator.
Overall, the book filled my need to turn pages but little else. If you in a reading rut and need a jumpstart, Luckiest Girl Alive will give you the necessary push. But, if have a stack of books on your nightstand to read, you could pass on this one. Or see the movie – currently in production by Reese Witherspoon
Veronica Iacobazzo is a an 11th-grade English teacher in State College. She loves the serious and frivolous in all things related to books, television, fashion and pop culture. Follow her on her fledgling Twitter account @viacobazzo.