Monday, June 1, 2015


The former TifAni FaNelli (no, my shift key isn't broken) now goes by Ani (Ah-nee, please, not Annie), and her transformation hasn't been in name only. Ani is desperate to redefine herself and is doing an amazing job: she works at a fashionable NY magazine, has a perfect blue blood fiance, a ginormous engagement ring, and wears only the finest clothing and accessories on the figure she's constantly starving to a size 2. Ani has been in New York for six years, taking part in what she describes as "an extended master's program in how to appear effortlessly moneyed."

The what and how aren't nearly as fascinating as the why, and Jessica Knoll's debut novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, does a fantastic job keeping the reader interested in Ani's story even as her persona becomes more and more off-putting, even as the story moves from snarky to dark to disturbing.

TifAni FaNelli was decidedly middle class, attending all-girl Catholic schools "devoid of any Main Line aristocracy" when she was caught smoking pot and sent to the "hoity-toity" Bradley School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. As Ani herself says, that's where her education began. Bradley was like "an abusive foster mother - she saved me from the system but only so she could have her twisted, meth-fueled way with me."

I found Knoll's portrayal of TifAni's time at Bradley really well done, setting out the angst of the new girl and her efforts to fit in. The lunch table politics were particularly detailed and no matter where your own middle school/high school hot-button topic resides, you can likely relate to what TifAni is going through. Up to a point.

What became of TifAni's time at Bradley is being made into a documentary, and Ani is desperate to prove she's not what they think she is, that she has become a somebody, someone who is perfect and has it all, despite what happened at Bradley. If she is to allow herself to be interviewed for the documentary, she has to perfect her metamorphosis, despite her discomfort with much of it:

Even if this documentary did nothing to clear my old name, even if no one believed me, the least I could do was take away their ammo: She's disgusting, nothing but a fat, bitter slam pig. The pill left a residue on my tongue that tasted the way money smells - musky, powdery - and I willed myself to believe that redemption was the only possibility.

Knoll's method of writing about the two time periods, TifAni in the midst of crisis fifteen years ago at age 14 and Ani now, still in crisis at age 28, was brilliant. As we get to know Ani, what's really going on behind the false front, she goes from a snarky professional fashionista to someone who becomes more and more sarcastic and troubled, someone many readers may even find unlikable.

Yet at the same time, the reader gets alternating chapters relaying what happened to TifAni at a mere 14 years of age, and just as Ani's unlikability grows, so does the reader's understanding of and thus (hopefully) empathy for what she went through and continues to struggle with. It's a big lesson in seeing behind the curtain and not writing someone off without knowing their whole story and did a lot to soften Ani's more difficult personality traits.

Ani's whole story is engrossing. Engrossing and disturbing and multi-layered. Just when you think the trauma is over, Knoll steps it up a notch. We see what happened to TifAni, how she was vilified, why she felt the need to become Ani, and why the desperate need to become another person in time for the documentary:

I was no friend of the five, but the opportunity to redeem myself, to tell my side of the story - it made my mouth water. But if I was going to do this, I would do it right. There was no way I was mugging for the camera if I hadn't checked off all the boxes in the hotly contested "having it all" category - cool job, impressive zip code; hungry body, and the kicker - dreamboat fiance. An engagement to Luke would make my rise unassailable. No one could touch me if I was marrying Luke Harrison the IV. How many times had I fantasized telling my story to the camera, bringing my hand to my face, the emerald that would soon be mine gloating as I wiped away a dainty tear?  

Luckiest Girl Alive is an intense read, but one that speeds along with little respite. And despite the intensity, there is true humor in Knoll's writing and in Ani herself. She has a razor wit. She's sharp, and she uses that intelligence to her own ends, in connection with the documentary and her life, leaving this reader with a satisfying conclusion.

STREET SENSE:  I see a bit of the Gone Girl comparison, but this work stands on its own; and truly, that comparison is way overdone these days. I do feel Knoll has a bit of a kindred spirit in Megan Abbott, so if you enjoy Megan's fine work, this one is likely right up your alley. I went in not knowing anything about the story, and my mind was changed multiple times about TifAni, Ani, and where the past was leading us in the present. I recommend Luckiest Girl Alive if you like intense, complex character studies within the confines of a twisted, compelling, and intriguing story. What's not to like?

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  I'm picking two, one from TifAni and one from Ani, just to highlight some of the variation in character and tone. First up is TifAni:

Once I was at my desk, in my seat, dutifully jotting down everything the teacher said in my notebook, I was fine. It was the moment the bell rang, when everyone scattered like bedbugs from the light, that the panic stretched its arms and yawned big, rousing from its fitful sleep. Because then I was roaming the hallways, a wounded soldier on enemy territory, aware of the red light between my eyes, that I was injured and slow, could do nothing but keep moving and pray they'd miss.

And Ani:

Kate probably grew up in a red-brick, white-shuttered home, a home that doesn't deceive with tacky siding in the back, like mine did. But a Kate could never give Luke what I give him, and that's the edge. Rusted and bacteria ridden, I'm the blade that nicks at the perfectly hemmed seams of Luke's star quarterback life, threatening to shred it apart. And he likes that threat, the possibility of my danger. But he doesn't really want to see what I can do, the ragged holes I can open. I've spent most of our relationship scratching at the surface, experimenting with the pressure, how much is too much before I draw blood? I'm getting tired.

COVER NERD SAYS: I really like this cover. Take a rose; something so simple, so beautiful, such a pure symbol of love, and turn it black. Place it on a gradient black background. The message has been entirely distorted by a mere change in color palette. I'm hooked.


Katie McD @ Bookish Tendencies said...

Been hearing so much about this one lately, and am hoping to read it!

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I was handed an ARC at a convention and had heard nothing about it and had no idea what to expect, so it was an interesting reading experience. I really enjoyed it and thought it was really different. I was especially interested in how my feelings about the protag changed, how her voice changed, over time. Fascinating stuff. I'd love to hear your thoughts if you give it a go!

Julianne - Outlandish Lit said...

Oooh, this actually sounds pretty fun to read. I'd seen it around a lot, but the cover just rang YA to me, so I kind of skipped over looking into it. Not that I hate YA, I just don't pay much attention to it unless literally everyone is haha.

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I so hesitate to go out on a limb that seems to disappear from beneath me when it comes to suggesting books to you, but I think you might like it. :)

Marisa @The Daily Dosage said...

Yep, gonna add this one to my list now too. I love getting a book you know nothing about and really enjoying it. Bonus!

Malcolm Avenue Review said...

I was truly pleasantly surprised by this one, it was definitely worthwhile.

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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