Jessica Knoll’s debut is not the next Gone Girl. You can be forgiven for thinking it might be. Both have dark, twisty, true-crime-inspired plots—though you won’t learn from which headline Luckiest Girl was ripped until chapter 12. Both have been optioned by Reese Witherspoon to become dark, twisty, true-crime-inspired films. And both feature shrewd, prickly, damaged heroines who have made their careers at glossy magazines—much like Knoll and Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn once did. (Knoll used to work at Cosmo and Self; Flynn used to work here at EW.)
But Knoll’s Ani—full name: TifAni FaNelli, and yes, that’s how it’s spelled—is a lot more status-conscious than Flynn’s Amy. That’s because she wasn’t born into money. Ani has spent her entire life trying to make up for that fact—and by 28, it seems she’s finally achieved Instagram-picture perfection, complete with a WASP trophy husband-to-be. Of course, beneath her carefully spackled surface and barre-toned, washboard abs, Ani’s a wreck, thanks largely to a series of traumas she endured during her freshman year at a tony Philadelphia private school.
The truth of what happened to Ani unfurls slowly, sometimes painfully so, through flashback chapters that alternate with sections set in the present. It’s a necessary device, since current-day Ani is often so cartoonishly unpleasant that despite Knoll’s razor-sharp writing—clearly she knows from status-obsessed magazine editors—it can be difficult to care about what happens to her narrator. (It’s a credit to the author’s propulsive prose that you’ll keep reading anyway, if only to solve the story’s central mystery. I finished the book in a single night.) Gone Girl works in large part because of how it suddenly shows that the bubbly, generous Amy readers thought they knew is a lie. Knoll does the opposite: Ani is a nasty piece of work from the moment we meet her, but she grows more sympathetic as the roots of her lowgrade psychopathy are exposed.
And when it does come, that reveal is a real doozy—a legitimately shocking, completely unputdownable sequence that unfolds like a slow-motion horror film. It instantly elevates Luckiest Girl, making it more than the Gone Girl imitator it initially appears to be—and that momentum keeps going until its final pages. The book still isn’t innovative enough to inherit Flynn’s mantle, but it’s gripping enough to earn a spot on a nearby shelf. B+