Luckiest Girl Alive
By Jessica Knoll
Simon & Schuster
344 pages, $25
By Stephanie Shapiro
News Book Reviewer
“My byline is much more likely to appear next to ‘99 Ways to Butter His Baguette’ than it is next to an interview with Valerie Jarrett,” TifAni FaNelli confesses/brags early in “Luckiest Girl Alive.”
Tif, or Ani, for short, has a perfect life, working at a huge-circulation women’s magazine and aiming, along with her boss, for a job at the New York Times. She lives in an apartment with a doorman in TriBeCa. For her approaching wedding to a blueblood New Englander, “I opted for a small boutique ... the racks carefully curated with Marchesa, Reem Acra and Carolina Herrera.”
She wears extra-small Stella McCartney for Adidas yoga pants to her $325-a-month gym. She has mastered various dress codes for every occasion, “all while wearing cheap-looking $495 Rag & Bone booties.” For Ani, “The uglier and trendier the outfit, the stronger I emanate intimidating magazine editor ... I saw how there was a protection in success ... I just had to get to that, I decided, and no one could hurt me again.”
When she aches for her fiancé, Luke, to wrap his arms around her and hold her against his Turnbull and Asser shirt, is the shirt or the boyfriend the accessory? Luke wears Ferragamo shoes, but for casual wear, it’s Prada loafers. Although he has promised to give Ani a Cartier watch for the past year, she makes do with a TAG Heuer.
In her size zero Milly dress, “My Bottega Veneta clutch made a smacky, kissy noise as I snapped it open.” At the wedding rehearsal dinner, the best man’s speech about her seems phony, yet, “Wasn’t that the personality I’d meticulously crafted for Luke? Adorably quirky?”
The chinks in Ani’s glittery armor start appearing with trivial matters. The wedding invitations could trip her up. With all the violence hinted at in events of 15 years before, it seems odd that she broods, “Will anyone notice if we used a calligrapher for the addresses on the envelope but script for the invitation? I was terrified of making a decision that would expose me. I’ve been in New York for six years and it’s been like an extended master’s program in how to appear effortlessly moneyed – only now with that downtown edge.”
Yet this proccupation is no more odd than her glee at learning that after slurping oysters, one deposits them, shells outward, on the plate – or wherever one deposits them. She wants to master all the rules, especially the unspoken ones, that go along with old money.
Ani has learned since childhood that “surrounded by Chaunceys and Griers, the many simple, elegant Kates, not a single last name that ended in a vowel, TifAni FaNelli stood out like the hillbilly relative who shows up at Thanksgiving and drinks all the expensive whiskey.”
“I thought wealth was shiny red BMWs (leased) and five-bedroom McMansions (mortgaged three times). Not that we were even fake rich enough to live in the five-bedroom travesties,” she recalls.
Now her life is different from what it might have been, had she stayed on her side of the tracks in Pennsylvania. It is perfect, with all the right brand names. The Bradley School, where she had tried so hard to fit in, is now beneath her.
“I’d had a Marilyn Monroe body since the fifth grade,” Ani recalls, so these days lunch is a single spoonful of peanut butter and a glass of water. Sally Hershberger Downtown “had never suggested Brigitte Bardot hair for me before I’d gotten down to 104 pounds.” Being skinny is what counts; nutrition is irrelevant. For Ani and her friends, Kate Middleton looked so hungry on her wedding day it had to be commended. Ani is thrilled when the seamstress marvels at the gap between her waist and a size 6 bodice. She even considers changing the way she holds her smart phones to prevent Early Onset Turkey Neck.
Her mom could have used “Stella Dallas” as a role model. Dad “hadn’t had an interest in my life, in any life, his own included, ever since I could remember.” So when Ani has to leave Mount St. Theresa’s, also known as soccer moms training camp, for the Bradley School, she is left pretty much on her own to deal with the privileged refugees from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” or “Animal House” and the high jinks they get away with.
The teachers are no help, playing little faculty-politics games and using psychological bullying to keep the students under some semblance of control. During “the incident,” Ani looks at a student and notices, “He was still smiling as the bullet dovetailed into his collarbone, blood splashing the wall behind him like the Jackson Pollock paintings we were learning about in Contemporary Art.”
Our first peek into the abyss occurs when an aspiring writer wanting career advice from Ani admires “my strength in adversity.” The glimpse snaps shut right away, only to click open again, randomly at first, then more frequently, with references to “The Five” and to a documentary film being produced about “the incident.”
Knoll puts Ani through emotional traumas to the point where all the best trademarks in the world are not enough to dull the pain in her soul. Agreeing to participate in the documentary about “the incident” becomes Ani’s route to redemption. She barely grasps opportunities to break through the symbols of success that have formed a shell around her spirit.
An electronic error – a microphone left open by mistake – clears away tons of emotional debris. The leak enables Ani to tell the truth about “the incident” and to face the realities of her formerly perfect life rather than merely adding layers of “success” to protect herself.
At book’s end, she has made some career changes and sacrificed some arrogance. These steps are symbolized by her relinquishing the emerald/diamond/platinum engagement ring she has regarded as a shield from emotional dangers. The ring has epitomized the “old money” Ani has longed for during most of her life: It had belonged to her boyfriend’s grandmother.
Readers guessing what the “dark underbelly” of this story is can guess again. It is just the beginning, a trap set by the author for smug readers. The event only sets into motion “the incident,” a horrific chain of events and revelations that Jessica Knoll has tucked into the plot among the various characters’ comings and goings.
She scatters the clues so obscurely and randomly that peeking at the ending is just a waste of time. The reader has to pick the way through the plot maze a step at a time to keep the events in some kind of order. No shortcuts here.
Knoll was a senior at Cosmopolitan magazine for five years and worked at Self magazine, so she knows the cutthroat world of magazines and glitter. She also graduated from an elite high school and college and knows which way to shuck an oyster. Reese Witherspoon and her associates have optioned film rights to “Luckiest Girl Alive.” Such information usually gathers dust among the publisher’s advertising materials, but Knoll’s knack for social nuances on both sides of the socioeconomic tracks deserves mention for the high praise it already is receiving in the book world.
“Luckiest Girl Alive” takes the reader through glossy offices and the oh-so-hip Manhattan vibe, back to the scene of the many misdeeds that have affected Ani. It ends with the possibility of new beginnings, where she can decide who she is all over again and perhaps do it better, this time. But the question remains: Will she?
Stephanie Shapiro is a former News writer and editor.