BRIGHT YOUNG WOMEN, by Jessica Knoll
At the beginning of Jessica Knoll’s third novel, “Bright Young Women,” there’s a haunting aside that hints at the rest of the book like the rustling of leaves before a hurricane: “She swung the lock lever and pushed her hands against the glass, leaving prints that would soon have no living match.”
For Pamela Schumacher, the storm is a serial killer who breaks into her sorority house in Tallahassee, Fla., in 1978. Four sisters are attacked. Two survive, traumatized and scarred. Two women die. Pamela is the only sister who sees the face of the killer — and, 40 years later, she’s still haunted by him, mourning the friends whose lives were snuffed out.
“Three impeachments. One pandemic. The towers going down. Facebook. Tickle Me Elmo. Snapple iced tea. They never got to taste Snapple iced tea,” Knoll writes. “But it didn’t happen in some bygone era either. If they had lived, they’d be the same age as Michelle Pfeiffer.”
Knoll only refers to the intruder as “the Defendant,” which is a canny, important choice, because too often serial killers are portrayed as diabolical masterminds instead of the hideous life leeches they are. This one is meticulously based on a certain rapist and murderer who got his start in the Pacific Northwest, who’s been lionized in pop culture and is invariably played by handsome young actors such as Mark Harmon and Zac Efron. While he looms large in the imaginations of crime junkies and the tabloids, his victims are too often reduced to footnotes. Knoll flips that script in “Bright Young Women.”
In the opening of the novel, Knoll recounts the night of the crime in a tense but frustrating way. Suspense builds, occasionally at the cost of the story’s flow. The chapter headings create a macabre countdown, followed by the horrific slog of the aftermath — the shock, the indifferent cops, the clueless campus authorities. Knoll teases at darker turns in later chapters one too many times, so I found myself keeping track of clues when I should have been experiencing the immediacy of her prose.
Pamela crosses paths with Tina, a wealthy widow who is trying to get justice for Ruth, who was one of the Defendant’s early victims. In the hurly-burly of the Florida trial, Ruth is in danger of becoming yet another lost soul.
As the narrative jumps forward and backward in time, with Pamela and Ruth offering alternating points of view, it’s a testament to Knoll’s skill that you’re never rudderless in the story. The women are distinct and memorable. Pamela is recoiling in disgust under her responsible, happy facade; Ruth is naïve and hopeful.
There are sharp, stinging details: “She was doing that rich-person thing again, begging me to take mercy on her by accepting all her charities.” There are ironic — or tragic, depending on how you read them — signposts of societal horrors yet to come. For example, this conversation between Pamela and Tina in 1978:
“Have you ever heard of anorexia?” Tina asked, examining the label on the bottle.
“The thing where women starve themselves?” I said in a dubious voice, shimmying a pair of denim jeans up my legs. “That wasn’t Denise,” I said naïvely. “She was just really careful about what she ate.”
There is so much simmering rage — in every dismissive remark from a homicide detective or concerned journalist (who later turns out to be on the make for a book deal) — that it’s all Pamela can do to keep her emotions in check.
Knoll is also adept at showing pain, especially in an otherwise ludicrous scene where Pamela is face to face with her friends’ killer in court. Dressed in a suit, representing himself, he questions her account of the evening:
“Was it a lot of blood or only some blood?”
“It was a lot.”
There was a purse of his lips, like an air kiss. In that moment I understood. This was all he wanted: to relive it. There was no trapdoor beneath my feet, at least none the Defendant had the pull cord to. He had summoned me here to tweeze the goriest bits from my memory.
Even more sickening is this detail (apparently taken from real life), which counteracts the news media’s narrative of the Defendant as a young man with a sharp legal mind: “The way his team had to manage him, by calling inconsequential witnesses to the stand just so he had someone to question without torpedoing the defense, would later remind me of a toddler given one of those play cellphones because that’s what the adults had and he’s not a baby.”
“Bright Young Women” is packed with moments when you feel the size of the deck stacked against any woman, young or old, who dares to be “bright.” There’s always something in the dark that curses the glittering and the hopeful. Knoll doesn’t make Pamela’s journey (or ours) an easy one, but it ends in a cathartic, long-bottled-up scream that more people need to hear. And, one hopes, the telling of this tale (and more like it) will shred the myth of the “murderer/genius” one cut at a time.
Patton Oswalt is an Emmy and Grammy Award-winning writer and comedian.
BRIGHT YOUNG WOMEN | By Jessica Knoll | 384 pp. | Marysue Rucci Books | $27.99