Book Review: Jessica Knoll’s Bright Young Women reverses the serial killer narrative

Bright Young Women

Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll paints a vivid canvas of enthralling storytelling that navigates the complexities of female ambition, societal expectations, and the pursuit of success. Knoll, acclaimed for her previous works, including Luckiest Girl Alive, demonstrates her prowess once again in crafting a compelling narrative that delves into the lives of multifaceted characters.

Jessica Knoll is celebrated for her ability to tackle intricate psychological landscapes within her narratives. Her background as a former senior editor at Cosmopolitan and her own experiences in the publishing industry lend authenticity to her storytelling, infusing her work with a gripping realism that resonates with readers.

Set against a backdrop of high stakes and cutthroat competition, Knoll weaves an intricate tale that follows the interconnected lives of diverse women striving to carve their paths in a male-dominated world. Her prose tantalises the reader with its sharp wit and incisive commentary on power dynamics, ambition, and the sacrifices demanded by success.

Through her characters, Knoll brings forth a resonant exploration of ambition’s darker sides, skillfully highlighting the thin line between ambition and ruthlessness. The narrative’s twists and turns keep readers on edge, unraveling secrets and hidden motives, all while provoking introspection about the cost of ambition.

The novel is a fictionalised retelling of the crimes of Ted Bundy, a killer who has been often romanticised in pop culture. The key difference with this retelling is that Knoll does not mention his name, instead referring to him as “the Defendant,” a deliberate and significant choice.

This decision stands out as a shrewd move because prevalent portrayals of serial killers often elevate them as cunning masterminds, obscuring the abhorrent reality of their parasitic existence. Rather than this novel being about the killer, it is about the women victims and survivors, and is told through the eyes of two women who crossed the Defendant’s path.

The first story told follows Pamela Schumacher, a prominent figure within the University of Florida’s sorority house. She survives a harrowing attack that results in the tragic deaths of two of her housemates and leaves two others severely disfigured. Pam, a diligent pre-law student, becomes a crucial eyewitness to the events. Her life becomes a perpetual struggle haunted by the need to come to terms with the horrors she witnessed and to play her part in ensuring the apprehension and conviction of the assailant. Soon after the event, Pamela is approached by Tina, who believes that her friend Ruth may have fallen victim to the same killer.

We are then transported back a few years where we meet, Ruth Wachowski, and this one shook me to my core. Unbeknownst to twenty-five-year-old Ruth, the reader soon becomes aware that she is set to become the Defendant’s next victim. Knoll does a great job of developing Ruth’s character, making the events that are sure to unfold even harder to come to terms with.

Knoll’s storytelling acumen shines as she expertly blends elements of mystery and suspense, keeping the audience engaged until the final page. This is especially significant as the story does jump around between 1974, 1978 and 2021 and definitely has the potential to be confusing if you’re not paying close attention! Her vivid descriptions and well-crafted dialogues breathe life into the characters, making their journeys captivating and immersive.

In Bright Young Women, Knoll delivers a tour de force that not only entertains but also prompts contemplation about the high costs of ambition in a society where success often demands more than one is willing to sacrifice. This novel stands as a testament to Knoll’s literary prowess, cementing her position as a masterful storyteller who deftly explores the complexities of the human psyche while navigating the murky waters of ambition, power, and self-discovery.

Bright Young Women

Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll is available now from Pan Macmillan. Grab your copy from Booktopia HERE.