The Favorite Sister: “a decent story moderately well told”

the-favorite-sisterI loved Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive so much that I read it—and re-read it—on a Kindle.

I inherited my mom’s old Kindle which was perfect at the time. I was living in Abu Dhabi and my thirst for books was not quenched by the paperbacks available in the Virgin megastore at the Abu Dhabi mall. I made do with the Kindle while I had to, but reading books electronically is not my thing. I need pages to turn and I often have to flip back to reference a name or an event. I like measuring my progress not by looking at a status bar but in terms of what’s left to go in my right hand. But I read Knoll’s novel and, after we moved back, I bought Luckiest Girl in paperback and I reread that thing again.

I love that book and I love Knoll’s essays (see here, here and here for examples) and I was both excited that she produced a new novel in short order and terrified that it might suffer from a sophomore slump. 

The Favorite Sister is juicy from the jump—we know this is a behind-the-scenes look at a reality show and we already know there’s been a murder. The “Goal Diggers” cast members names and personas are laid out on page one and, through subsequent descriptions, it’s easy to conjure mental images of these women. Knoll’s strong point is, as ever, detail:

There’s something about her that’s fundamentally unf*ckable. I guess she’s pretty—the network’s not evolved enough to cast uggos yet—but it’s an anemic kind of pretty. She’s a whey-faced canvas upon which she’s applied the “vegan boho” palette. Lots of tea-stained lace schmattas are involved. Maybe that’s where this unsexiness comes from, the fact that she has no idea who she is or what she stands for. Everything is an imitation, flower child cosplay, with the end goal being money and success rather than fulfillment and pleasure.

Knoll’s writing retains its bite. We get to view a very slow motion train wreck through three somewhat unreliable narrators and each one brings us a little taste of the snarky Ani FaNelli we’ve been missing since Luckiest Girl:

“Guys, relax,” Vince says, daringly. It takes a set of steel to chance on the r-word around two women with a combined net worth of not in your lifetime, bud but my husband does not exactly conduct himself in a risk-averse fashion

But some of Knoll’s writing trips her, and my brain, up. Her cadence is often choppy and there were sentences that made me feel like I was reading in a foreign language I’m only conversationally familiar with—comprehension comes a belated beat after the last word. I found that once I settled in I could go more fluidly, but Knoll’s writing makes for a book you can’t easily pick up and put down. 

This book was also incredibly pessimistic—which may be intentional. It’s edgy and angry about topics Knoll has every right to surface as edgy and angry but it leaves a bite. Every single character in this book is reprehensible in some way—except, perhaps, for Brett’s fiancé, Arch, or Amal lesbian Clooney as Jen refers to her—and I felt pissed off by the lot of them. It was hard to find any realistic examples of love or friendship but perhaps I’m asking for too much from this book. These women have been shoved into a hellish pressure cooker and are expected to act like friends so it’s natural that manipulation abounds and “friendship” is faked through self-serving alliances. Although there are blood relatives and marriages among them, not a single person seems to display any genuine kindness or empathy. Even Layla, the 12-year-old wunderkind who started an e-commerce nonprofit to support indigenous Moroccan women, is exposed as a hack-in-training playing Western Savior to a Moroccan teen. We must assume that Layla can only mirror what she’s been taught—in the moment she exploited an Insta story to document her new “friendship,” we see that reality TV culture has already poisoned her. 

But none of this prevented me from finishing the book because, really, it was a pretty decent story moderately well told. It’s funny, it’s current, it makes you think about race and class and sexual assault and who has the right to tell what story and to whom and when. I have a personal rule in my #25in2019 book challenge that Kondofans will appreciate: if I am reading something that doesn’t spark joy, I quit immediately. There are too many books on my Want To Read list to waste time trying to slog through something I can’t hook onto. And this book kept me coming back to the very end. 

Rating: A solid B+. The kind you can sweet talk into an A-.

For fans of: The Luckiest Girl in the World (obvs), The Real Housewives/The Hills/The Bachelor or any other reality show where women pretend to be bestest friends