Uh-oh, the cover says “Gillian Flynn” and it’s an “Instant New York Times Best Seller.” It seems like ever since Gone Girl, everybody’s trying to hop onto the unreliable narrator train (including, of course, Paula Hawkins with The Girl on The Train).
So here is the actual scoop: even if you ignore the hoopla, Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive is still a powerhouse of a first novel. Main character Ani FaNelli is leading a charmed life. She’s 28, lives in Manhattan, writes for a women’s magazine, wears size-zero designer clothes, and is engaged to a handsome blueblood. And frankly, she comes across as a pretty controlling bitch.
But her backstory… ah, her backstory. Well, first of all, Ani is not really Ani. She TifAni. And she grew up on the wrong side of town with a meek dad and a social climbing mom, who scraped up the money to send TifAni to private school so she could meet the right people (rich people, that is) and make a new life. Tif would do almost anything to fit in with the cool kids. And she did some pretty stupid stuff, up to and including partying with a bunch of boys, getting drunk, getting raped, and then backing away from prosecuting the boys… because desperate as she was, she still wanted them to like her.
Back to today: Big rock on her finger, wedding around the corner, glamorous job, Ani’s being courted to participate in a documentary, to “tell her story.” Wait, what story? What is it that fiance Luke wants Ani to put behind her, that Ani is so desperate to overcome? A Columbine-style school shooting, perpetrated by one of her closest friends. Although she was never prosecuted, some suspected that she was involved.
Knoll alternates between Ani and TifAni, revealing more and more of her story and how out-of-control this very controlled and controlling young woman really is. Ani has a strong voice that is uniquely hers, and we see everything through her eyes. The ending is particularly satisfying, as Ani addresses her unresolved issues. Much to her credit, Knoll doesn’t make it too easy on Ani.
How to compare with the other nominees, Past Crimes and Where All Light Tends to Go? What should get the Edgar for best First Novel?
Luckiest Girl is definitely above Past Crimes, which is likely to be the first in an entertaining and serviceable series for Glen Erik Hamilton, but feels more written-to-order than inspired. Both Light and Luckiest Girl have unique characters with unique perspectives, so that’s a tie.Writing is good in both, and although Luckiest Girl is more accessible, Light has its reasons for not being so. From a psychological point of view, Knoll has to address a wider variety of characters and motivation, so she has the edge there. But ultimately, I’m making this call simply on which book I enjoyed more. And that means Luckiest Girl Alive bounces to the top.
Literary Lunchbox Edgar Rankings: Best First Novel
- Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
- Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
- Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton