Luckiest Girl Alive–Jessica Knoll

Cover Art for Luckiest Girl Alive

This is another of the “girl” thriller novels.  Indeed, on the jacket, this novel is compared to those novels, which is what led me to it.  Because I enjoyed those novels, I kept going despite a rough beginning.  Ani writes  about sex and other trivia for a prominent women’s magazine.  While others may see her as successful, she is plagued by insecurities.  Her columns are trivial.  She is still the girl who grew up in a McMansion whose mother wore clothes and drove a car a little too flashy to fit in with the truly monied whose acceptance she craved and whose acceptance led her to make sacrifices to send Ani, then TifAni, to a private school miles away from home filled with the privileged offspring of old money.  Ani, now living the dream life in New York City, is engaged to a man from old money, Lucas Harrison.  He seems dreamy until we get below the surface, where Ani reveals that he is in love with a facade she has created and worked hard to maintain, but the cracks of which are showing.

The novel moves between past and present through Ani’s perspective.  She reveals the problems in her parents’ marriage (her father was forced to marry her mother when she became pregnant with Ani and has not seemed to have a feeling for either of them since).  Mostly she reveals the ways in which she did not fit in and how deeply she felt her outsider status.  She makes friends with the popular crowd early in her days at Bradley, the private high school, but all goes downhill when she attends a party of only the boys while parents are out of town.  Enter the gang rape story of an incapacitated young woman, which is plenty sympathetic, but Knoll drags it out and many chapters in I was wondering how the novel was going to sustain the plot for many more pages.

A crucial plot device rests in a documentary being made about Bradley, for which Ani has agreed to be interviewed and about which Lucas is very unhappy.  He knows “what happened,” which readers can assume at this point was the rape, but his lack of empathy is troubling.  When the interview finally arrives, Ani reveals another “big thing” that happened at Bradley–a mass shooting/suicide in the style of Columbine and that relates in part to her rape.  This should have been compelling, but, because Knoll dragged out the rape and tried to build suspense for so long about what was the big deal with the interview, by the time the shooting story unfolded, I was annoyed.  What else, I thought, could Knoll pile into this novel?  Wait a minute, a complication with her favorite teacher, who now appeared in her life again and was also being interviewed.  But wait again, now how about reality tv?  What about the documentary crew filming the wedding of Ani and Lucas as a happy ending to the tragic shooting story?

All of these “ripped from the headlines” elements seemed piled atop one another for effect, like a bad infomercial, rather than authentic plot elements that flowed from one another.  This was not a bad story.  It was not a very good story.  Ani was not a very sympathetic (which is saying something given her gang rape and shooting victim status) main character.  Perhaps that’s because it was difficult to empathize with an upper-middle-class white girl whose parents gave her everything but the love she needed in order to elevate her and themselves into the next super-elite social stratus when there are so many stories in the news and elsewhere today of people struggling against much greater adversities.  Perhaps it’s because Knoll prioritizes Ani’s struggle with her middle-class identity over her insecurity and intimacy issues resulting from her multiple victimizations.  Either way, while this novel may have tried to be a Gone Girl or a Girl on the Train, its protagonist was nowhere near as compelling and its plot nowhere near as skillfully constructed.

Finished 9/16


Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children–Ransom Riggs


I am late to this party.  A colleague of mine recommended this book two years ago.  I put it on my wish list, finally bought it this summer, and just read it when our German exchange student began raving about it.

My nine-year-old, who is a big reader, tried to join us, but the beginning was just too slow.  I have to agree with her.  The novel opens with Jacob Portman’s relationship with his odd grandfather, who tries to convince him there are monsters in the world with very specific stories and photographs, and who dies a traumatic death in the woods, which Jacob witnesses and sends him into therapy.  His parents and therapist explain these odd stories away with the fact that Jacob’s grandfather was a Jewish child in WWII Europe whose family were killed by the Nazis.  The monsters, they reassure Jacob, were the Nazis.  Jacob, however, cannot get over the nightmares that began when his grandfather was murdered and, when he discovers that the school his grandfather talked about is on a Welsh island, he talks his therapist into supporting his trip there and brings along his ne’er-do-well bird-watching father with some enticing rare birds.

Jacob finds a bombed-out dilapidated building that had been a school and a trunk with more pictures like those his grandfather had showed him.  Eventually he stumbles upon a “loop,” a day that repeats over and over, the day the school was bombed by Nazis, and he finds the children and the teacher that featured in his grandfather’s stories.

Once Jacob is on the island, the story moves fairly quickly.  Much of the charm of the story comes from the vintage photographs, which Ransom gathered from collectors and uses to illustrate the story.

This novel did a lot of interesting set up work, but, given the slow start, I am somewhat surprised it became as popular as it did.  The peculiar children have powers, but they are not amazing powers.  In fact, most of the powers on their own create problems for the children rather than empowerment.

I am interested to see how this translates to film this month and to read the later volumes in the series, one of which was just released this week.

Finished 8/2016

Unbecoming–Rebecca Scherm


Paris.  Antiques.  Art history.  A thriller.  What is not to like?

The pace.  The heroine.  Grace’s home life is “messy, broken” according to the fly leaf.  What’s broken?  Her parents had her out of wedlock, separated for a time, married other people, then reunited, married, and had sons, who are the apples of their eyes.  Grace feels like the outsider in her family.  Of married, working, non-abusive, non-alcoholic parents.  She chooses, instead, to make herself part of her rich neighbor’s family by playing a role, the cute daughter her neighbors never had, the lovable gal pal turned girlfriend of their son.  She secretly marries their son, but her facades begin to fall away when she moves to New York for a year of college and her role of slick city girl and lovable small-town girl come into conflict.

The story is told by moving between past and present, which should build suspense, but that instead begins tiresome.  Grace is in Paris restoring antiques under an assumed name and fighting anxiety as her husband and his best friend are released from prison.  Their crime–robbing a local museum and causing the death of the caretaker–are slowly spun out at an excruciating pace.  Everything in the plot is spun out in this fashion, and that becomes a problem very quickly.  This, however, could be overcome if Grace were likeable or, barring that, intriguing.  She is, instead, just annoying.  I kept reading not because she or the plot were compelling, but because I really wanted to find a saving grace in a novel that earned the high praise it has received.  In the end, I had to admit to myself I had chosen a lemon and spent precious reading time trying to prove myself right rather than cutting my losses and moving on.  The ending, which was meant, I think, to be complicated and clever, was just the icing on the cake.

Finished 8/2016