The Favorite Sister

There are few things I enjoy more in my fiction than a good, unreliable narrator. As someone who loves the art of storytelling, I find the way an unreliable narrator can construct a façade, building a truth out of a false assumption, a misremembered interaction, or an outright deception — and I find the tumble, as that façade almost invariably crumbles, as thrilling as a roller coaster. As a reader who frequently becomes deeply invested in the stories I read, I love how this trope forces readers to become emotionally and even intellectually invested in the act of storytelling. Why do I believe the things I am told in a story? Whose truth is worth believing? As a historian, I also find these stories intensely important, reminding us that every individual recounts stories and relates the realities that feel real to them–whether or not they are objectively “true.”

This is the promise that initially drew me to Jessica Knoll’s second novel, The Favorite Sister. From the opening pages, we learn that one of the main characters of this story is dead, and that everyone involved has a very good reason to keep the cause of her death secret. Despite this opening, I still wasn’t ready for the layers of lies, deceptions, and self-delusions that the characters in this book were capable of developing, or precisely how these narrative strands would wind together to create a story that is both duplicitous and revelatory.

The story centers on a reality television show called Goal Diggers, showcasing millennial women entrepreneurs who defy social norms in favor of personal success. Brett, a fan favorite, made millions by opening spin studios with a body-positive image. She and Kelly, her sister and business partner, provide bicycles for Imazighen women in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. Brett also recently became engaged to her girlfriend, a move guaranteed to help her standing on the show.

Book cover of The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll. (Simon and Schuster)

Other characters include Stephanie, the show’s first black star, a bestselling author of erotic novels who is about to release her memoir detailing her history of abuse in her teens at the hands of a boyfriend and her subsequent survival. Jen revolutionized the food industry with her vegan food line. No matter how successful she is, however, she can never escape the legacy, or dodge the disapproval of her mother, a second-wave feminist icon who is still revered by the show’s young audience. Lauren, who developed a female-oriented dating app, is determined to overcome her alleged drinking problem over the course of this season, providing a much-needed comeback story.

The show is billed as a demonstration of feminist empowerment, showing women helping women and eschewing social norms of child-rearing and beauty standards. But this construction in itself is a lie. Behind the scenes, the showrunners and producers play each storyline for maximum tension and instigate vicious rumors and backbiting among the women, even as the stars themselves plot to craft storylines that will ensure their survival on camera for another season. We know the season ends with murder, but who is the guilty party? Or, perhaps more importantly, is anyone truly innocent?

If you’re looking for a thriller with some brutal twists and turns, this is a perfect choice. I had the proverbial rug pulled out from under me several times in the course of reading, even after I thought I had learned not to take any of these characters’ words at face value. For those who enjoy the high-pitched drama and volatility of reality television, this story will feed all of your cravings. But for those, like me, who like their fiction tinged with a good deal of social commentary and feminist theory, this book is also a complex and often challenging assessment of feminism and women’s roles in the world.

The Goal Diggers set represents a microcosm of privileged feminism, as well as the hostile realities of our misogynist culture. The cast members are trapped in a world where their every move, every decision, and every meal is publicly critiqued. Desperate for approval from a world that consistently withholds it, they turn on each other, gleefully “trashing” each other in an attempt to craft a narrative that allows them to be a protagonist, rather than a victim or a villain.

While reading, I was reminded of Leslie Jamison’s “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” which probes our cultural fascination with women’s pain and suffering. Both Jamison’s essay and Knoll’s novel remind us that, in our world, there is little more compelling that watching a woman suffer. The women of Goal Diggers use that knowledge to their best advantage, displaying the scars and pain that are most likely to get the maximum amount of attention for them and their storylines. But reveling in pain also, in a sense, denies the reality of it. Pain becomes a performance, rather than an experience. As Jamison noted:

What’s fertile in a wound? Why dwell in one? Wounds promise authenticity and profundity, beauty and singularity, desirability. They summon sympathy. They bleed enough light to write by. They yield scars full of stories and slights that become rallying cries. They break upon the fuming fruits of damaged engines and dust these engines with color. And yet—beyond and beneath their fruits—they still hurt.

And it is this paradox that made the characters in The Favorite Sister so compelling for me. Yes, they are all liars. They all behave abominably to each other, even as they defend their status as the injured party, the innocent victim of circumstance, the noble sufferer attempting to rise about the fracas. But even as these women perform suffering for rating and reviews, they live with the real pain that the world, the show, and their fellow cast members have inflicted on them, and with which they don’t know how to cope.

Jen, for example, flaunts her ideal figure in designer clothes that hide the real effects of starvation on her body. Brett openly discusses being the unloved sister growing up, but it takes a hidden camera to discover the real scars that trauma left behind. Realizing the real suffering behind these women’s cultivated pain elevates this book from a juicy thriller to something much more profound and intriguing, and also made it one of the most thought-provoking books of my summer.

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