The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll

I don’t think it’s possible to review The Favorite Sister without bringing up Jessica Knoll’s searing debut Luckiest Girl Alive. That book centered a female protagonist who was done being “nice”, to the consternation of a large number of readers. To the rest of us, TifAni FaNelli was a source of cathartic glee.

TFS expands on the idea of the “unlikeable” protagonist and spreads it across several characters, who are all involved with a reality TV program called Goal Diggers. Each season showcases 5 women trying to support and uplift each other as they pursue lucrative careers — or at least that was the original intent. The first season had terrible ratings so the women were subsequently pitted against one another, which turned the show into a highly lucrative smash. The book is told through the points of view of Brett, the white lesbian gym entrepreneur with a passion for helping needy women; Kelly, her older sister who juggles the practical side of running their business together with being a single mom to a mixed-race 12 year-old daughter, and Stephanie, the African-American author whose recent memoir has topped the charts and earned the attention of Hollywood. The reader learns very quickly that Brett was murdered and that Kelly is helping to cover it up: the rest of the book is the why and wherefore and how.

I actually enjoyed the structure of the novel with the shifting viewpoints and leaps back and forth in time. It felt especially suitable for a book about a reality show which, like most of its ilk, manipulates timelines for maximum drama. As far as who I was rooting for (because honestly you’re going to wind up rooting for one of the women,) my sympathies definitely rested more with Stephanie than anyone else. These women are all liars desperate to preserve their ways of life but she, I felt, was the person with the most justification.

Which leads to another thing I enjoyed about this book: the complete and brutal honesty about what it means to be a woman in these times. Ms Knoll skewers the ridiculous expectations women are subjected to while also showing great empathy for women who have to deal with said expectations on a daily basis. Most importantly, Ms Knoll cleverly illustrates how differing viewpoints are equally valid and how women (all, but specifically the ones in this book) aren’t necessarily good or evil but a very human mix of the two.

That said, it was really hard to like most of the women in this book because of their prevailing character trait: some people might think it avarice, but really it’s cowardice. Whereas TifAni did not lack courage, the women in this book all choose the easy way and it’s pretty disappointing. TFS is a well-written book with a lot of great insights but it’s also a story without heroes, which rarely makes for a good read and in this instance most definitely does not. I mean, it’s worthy reading, but it’s not satisfying reading, not the way LGA was. Here’s hoping Ms Knoll’s next book keeps improving on her oeuvre.

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