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What Would You Do – The Luckiest Girl Alive

This week is another What Would You Do episode. This time, Brook and Sarah discuss Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll. It’s crime fiction, but is it a mystery?

Discussed in order

Luckiest Girl Alive (2015) Jessica Knoll

Luckiest Girl Alive (2022) Netflix

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook. And we both love mystery.
SarahHi Brook
BrookHi Sarah! How are you doing today?
SarahI’m great. How are you?
BrookI’m good, I’m good. We have a “What Would You Do” episode today.
SarahWe do and this one is different than the other ones that we’ve done because there’s a TV adaptation as well as a book that I think we might end up talking about. But I think before we start, we should warn listeners that we are going to be talking in greater detail than we typically do so there may be some spoilers.
BrookSo I’ll start us off with a little summary of the story. Luckiest Girl Alive is the debut novel of Cosmopolitan writer and editor Jessica Knoll. It was released in 2015 as a psychological thriller, although I’m not convinced there are a lot of mystery elements in the story and maybe we’ll address that in our conversation later. It was recently produced as a Netflix original movie as Sarah mentioned.   Before I start with the plot summary, I would like to note that both the book and movie descriptions fail to warn audiences that it contains potentially triggering events. So please note that the story contains scenes of sexual assault, physical abuse, bullying, harassment, homophobia, and gun violence. If any of these topics are triggering for you and you opt not to listen today, we completely understand.   Okay, onto the plot summary. Our narrator is 28-year-old Tiffani “Ani” Fanelli, who appears to her friends and co-workers to be the luckiest girl alive. She’s a writer at a prominent women’s magazine, living in New York, apparently happy, successful, and engaged to marry Luke Harrison, the son of an extremely wealthy family. However, from the first scene we learn that Ani’s happiness and success are mostly put on. In fact, Ani is angry and cunning, displayed by her cutting internal monologues throughout the narrative. The book opens with Ani’s rapidly approaching wedding and her growing disillusionment with her fiancé. We learn she’s agreed to participate in a documentary film about events that occurred when she was a high school student at the prestigious Bradley prep school. But since Ani has carefully kept most of her experiences at Bradley a secret from those who know her now, the novel only reveals gradually the truth about what really happened. Through intermittent flashbacks, readers learn the horrifying truth. When Tiffani Fanelli was 14, she gets caught smoking pot and is expelled from the Catholic school she’s been attending. Her mother is angry but also a little excited to give Tiffani the opportunity to rub elbows with the rich kids at Bradley prep. Once there, Tiffani is embarrassed of her family’s modest lifestyle. And struggles to fit in with these wealthy kids. She immediately goes to work trying to be accepted by the popular group, which includes a stereotypical array of mean girls and jocks. She takes special interest in a boy named Liam, who is also new to the school, and he seems to like her as well.   When she’s invited to a party within weeks of arriving, Tiffani is thrilled. Once there, however, she discovers that she’s the only female who’s been invited. Drinking games ensue and always trying to impress, she drinks too much. Terribly drunk, Tiffani goes in and out of consciousness and is sexually assaulted by three boys, Peyton, Liam, and Dean. Still determined to be part of the in crowd, she tells no one of the assaults, except for her favorite teacher, Mr. Larson. He tries to get her to tell her mom and the authorities, but Tiffani refuses. She does not want to get the boys into trouble. Liam takes her to the pharmacy for the morning after pill. As one would expect, news of what happened at the party still gets out. The cool kids humiliate Tiffani and spread vicious rumors. Weeks later, she’s invited to another one of their parties. And Dean gets Tiffani alone and tries assaulting her again. She resists and he hits her. This marks the final chapter of Tiffani’s association with the cool kids clique. The only student who will still talk to her is one of the school’s biggest misfits named Arthur. Arthur and Tiffani become close. She visits his house every day where they smoke pot and share their hatred for the mean rich kids.
BrookArthur tells Tiffani how they also tormented another friend of his, named Ben, with insinuations that he was gay. Dean pinned Ben to the ground and defecated on him. According to Arthur, their abuse drove Ben to attempt suicide.   During one of these after-school hangouts, Arthur shows Tiffani a hunting rifle of his father’s. Soon thereafter, Arthur and Ben storm the school, setting off a homemade bomb and roaming the halls, shooting kids they deem as their enemies. Tiffani and Dean are attempting to escape the school when they meet Arthur standing there with his father’s gun. Arthur offers it to Tiffani and encourages her to take revenge on her rapist. Instead, Tiffani takes out a steak knife she found in the cafeteria and stabs Arthur, killing him and ending the siege. Among the victims of the attack are Liam and Peyton, two of the boys who assaulted Tiffani. Dean survives the shooting and wants to ensure the story of the rapes never comes out, so he accuses Tiffani of being in league with the shooters. She narrowly avoids prosecution.   Coming back to the present day, the documentary project stirs these memories and anxieties that Tiffani, now going by Ani, has tried so hard to forget. Luke and her mother want her to just let it all go and move on.
BrookDue to this and Ani’s realization that she’s really only using Luke, she dreads the idea of marrying him. Coincidentally the teacher she confided in all those years ago, Mr. Larson, is a client of Luke’s and also invited to participate in the documentary. He and Ani reconnect several times and admit feelings for one another but do not act on them. During the documentary filming Ani agrees to meet with the wheelchair-bound Dean when Dean falsely believes he is out of range of the film’s crew’s microphone. She demands that he admits to raping her armed now with Dean’s confession Ani feels validated. She’s confident in her reclaimed identity and ends the engagement to Luke in a dramatic flight from their wedding rehearsal. She takes a position at a different magazine and resumes life as the real Tiffani Fanelli.
SarahThanks for that great summary, Brook. So I would agree with one of your opening statements that I’m not sure that I would classify this book after having read it twice and watched the the film, I’m not sure where I would put this.
BrookWell, I’m glad to hear you say that. And as always, we have not talked about the story together until now. So um, yeah, I was glad to hear you say that because I was wondering where are the elements of a thriller? Because as we’ve talked about domestic or psychological thrillers in the past there needs to be secrets. There would be twists and although they’re not a who done it, we’ve discussed before that they’re a who’s doing it. You have this sense in a thriller of not really understanding what’s going on or or what’s true and what’s um and what’s false, and I never felt that in this story.
SarahI mean I think there’s suggestion that you know perhaps, she’s an unreliable narrator. She’s certainly in the teenager parts of the story suggests that you know you know she was drunk, she doesn’t remember what happened, and and she was young, right? Those are kind of the signals that we’ve talked about in the past of what is an unreliable narrator. But yeah I spent a lot of the book trying to figure out like who is this character and why is she the way she is.
BrookOne hundred percent. And unfortunately, I don’t think in the end we really get that question answered.
SarahI would agree with that.
BrookSo in order to um so to begin the what would you do aspect of our episode, maybe we could start at the earliest information we get about Tiffani. And this would be her expulsion from the Catholic school and arrival at Bradley Prep. And I guess the first what would you do scenario that came to me is after being expelled and really causing a lot of turmoil for your family, would you work so hard to become part of the cool kids clique?
SarahYou know. I think so, actually. And I think it’s because you know, if you’re a teenager, you’re not thinking about how hard your parents worked to get you into this school, right? You’re just thinking about how do I make the next 3 or 4 years bearable. Being a teenager is not that fun. Um, and I think Knoll does a really great job of capturing that sort of insecurity, and the wanting to the real sensation of wanting to fit in. Um, and it’s all very superficial, right? What kind of cars someone’s driving what kind of house do they live in. Um and there’s a lot of ah there’s a lot of disordered eating in this book as well, both when she’s young and when she’s older. So to answer your your question, yeah I think I I probably would have felt a lot like she does at the beginning of the book. I just want to fit in.
BrookYeah, and that’s the that’s the place I landed as well. Like outside looking in, you know your alarm bells are going off, but to be honest, it’s very typical of how you feel when you’re a teenager you know, you gravitate to the safety of the cool kids or the you know the prestige. And that’s definitely something that’s important in Tiffani’s family. Her mom really wants to be um, upper crust and they’re not. They’re probably you call it middle class or upper middle class. Um, so she definitely has that pressure coming from home too. It’s also a tropey thing. You know you have the um new kid coming to the high school and wanting to fit in so it works as a storytelling device too I suppose.
SarahUm, absolutely because we are along with the character and trying to figure out who’s who at the school and and you know, where does she want to align herself.
SarahSo I have a what would you do question, but this jumps ahead to when she’s an adult. And she’s really worked very hard to reinvent herself. And we don’t, as readers, really understand why until the book has gotten much further along. But you know that first scene with her as an adult you get the sense that um, she’s really created this life for herself and so I wonder, Brook, do you think that that’s something that you would have done?
BrookYou’re right in that we don’t have much information to base this persona that she’s built on. I really kept wondering, you know why is this character unable to be real with anyone? Um, you know she has a fake persona for her fiancé, and for her mother, and for her the her friends at work And through these internal monologues, we know that she and she’s kind of catty about it. You know she’ll say oh I’ll tell him this but I really think that.
BrookAnd I’m dying to know what has caused this in this character, but it takes a really long time. Knowing what she went through, I guess I do have some sympathy for her. Because this was traumatic and maybe two of the most awful things that a young person can go through that all happens within the span of six months. So it’s definitely going to shape the rest of her life. Um, so I suppose yes. I think that the way the story unfolded I think as a reader I would have enjoyed having just a little bit more insight sooner because I found her really unlikable most of the story until we got to the crux of things.
SarahYeah I I was the same way. So, the first half of the book I really was like I don’t think I like this character very much um and you know I definitely felt for her in the teen version, insecure at a new school. Um, so being a teenager is is hard enough, moving to a new school is you know that just compounds that experience of being a teen. So she’s really just trying to figure life out. And I didn’t think that that came through as much in the movie as it did in the book.
BrookI would agree I would agree. The movie is also told in dual timelines like the book is, but I think the pacing is a little better. In fact, you get some of the backstory that’s important sooner. Um, but you’re right and similarly in the book and the movie in in both stories in both the book and the movie, I never felt like Tiffani’s family or friends treated her as if she had been through multiple sexual assaults and a school shooting. I felt like whatever the problem that was going to be revealed to us was like maybe a terrible car accident or um, you know a bad breakup. I mean seriously they kept it so superficial of wanting her to move on and not really hinting at the gravity of what she had been through and I was confused by that a lot of the time.
SarahYeah I agree.
BrookSo if we go back to the teenage timeline, would you have stayed at the party when it’s just a bunch of boys and you?
SarahThis is a tough one and I ask myself this earlier. Um, and so I will admit like I was not one of the popular crowd when I was in high school. Um, so I very much appreciated what Tiffani was feeling in terms… I didn’t necessarily want to be part of the popular crowd but I didn’t necessarily not want to be part of the popular crowd, if that makes sense.   Yeah as an adult? No I probably wouldn’t have stayed but as a teenager? Yeah I probably would have.
BrookYeah, it sounds like we were very similar teenagers, Sarah which is not very surprising that because we’re bookish girls. But um, you know when I was I have a teenage daughter and when I was watching. And reading this part of the book. It made me think how um happy that I am that we’ve always made it very clear that if you’re in a situation you send the SOS text and we’ll get you out of it without causing you embarrassment. You won’t be in trouble with us. We won’t even ask any questions if you just need out, you let us know. And unfortunately Tiffani doesn’t have that she doesn’t feel like she can tell her mom she doesn’t have a good relationship with her mom. She doesn’t have a good situation with the kids at school and she’s really stuck between a rock and a hard place. Um, so it’s it’s easy to see how this story unfolds the way it does and in such you know, utter tragedy for her.   But maybe more important than that because things get away from you. You know you’re one minute you’re there and you’re having some drinks to fit in and things run away and this terrible situation occurs. Would you want to keep these people as your friends?
SarahYeah, probably not um, but again, I just keep going back to you know teenagers and their brains are not as developed, and like you just are not making rational decisions, right.
BrookYou know we’re seeing all of this through the mom lens right, Sarah?
SarahTotally and, you know because she didn’t have a strong support network at home, she needed to find somewhere. Right? And so you know I think that’s that’s why she turns to Arthur as her friend. Um, and you know I I think I I probably would have done the same anybody who’s willing to talk to me, I’ll talk to you.
BrookFor sure and I ah although my summary didn’t reflect it, she actually meets Arthur on the first day of school and he’s very nice to her welcomes her and I will say that one little surprise was the fact that Arthur was you know a bad guy, essentially. Because I remember thinking as a reader “Oh good, you know now you you know, put those ah mean rich kids aside and have a real true friend.” And in fact, that was not to be.
SarahYeah, and I think what kind of really comes clearer towards the end of the book is the speculation after the shooting that she had been involved in it, right? That she had planned it along with Arthur and and I think Ben um, and so there is that question right? Like was she was she really involved and that’s kind of where I went back to how reliable as a narrator is she, right? Um I mean I I think ultimately I do believe that she um that she wasn’t involved.
BrookIt’s interesting that you say that because um I was thinking about how this story could be made more of a thriller or more mystery element. I wanted to reference our friend Jane Kalmes who came on the show a while back to talk about locked room mysteries with us and she’s got a great Youtube channel she talks about all sorts of mystery topics and how to create great mysteries. Um, but she has a really succinct definition of a twist. And because ah my thought was if this had a really good twist ending then it might have fulfilled that for me a little more and Jane says a twist is just simply something the reader believes that turns out to be false.
BrookAnd of course as ah as the author you lead the readers to believe that and you plant this one scenario and then it turns out to be false. Um, and so one way that Knoll could have achieved a twist is that Tiffani was actually the mastermind behind the whole thing to get revenge on her on her rapists. Um, it makes it a much darker story, but it would give you that gasp at the end when you realize that she she won right? She’s out of jail. She’s unscathed and and she got revenge on these on these men.
SarahYeah, yeah, no, that’s a that’s a really good point brick.
SarahAh, so I’ve got another.. What would you do and this is um again when she’s an adult she ends up getting into a relationship and and um, almost marrying someone who is very similar to the boys that she went to school with right? And she very actively seems to have you know created this life so that she could be in a position to marry someone like him and. You know? Do you think that that’s something that you would have done, Brook?
BrookI completely agree with what you said. I I remember thinking “Well she’s just recreating this same scenario where she’s trying to be with the cool people in her life you know or the or the rich people,” or however, you want to look at it. It was very frustrating but I guess I go back to if I were in her shoes and I’d been through what I’d been through. She’s still trying to work out that whole thing of being shunned by them and not being good enough for them. Um, them being the the cool kids. So I guess I could see why she did it and maybe if I were in that position I would but um I really was glad at the end of the the novel that she decides to go out on her own because I think that’s precisely what this character needs and maybe she can start being. Real in some way.
SarahUm, yeah, well and and you know throughout the book. She kind of voices this increasing um concern about whether this is the right relationship for her. Um.
SarahAnd there’s you know a couple of scenes I think where she kind of stands up to him or his friends where they are being I think it’s ah some is it friends who are being racist or is it a family member but she stands up when that’s happening and I think I did a little like “yes” because it was it was a redeeming um moment for her because you know she she really isn’t all that likable and it’s understandable why she’s not. You know why she is why she is who she is.
SarahThe last straw for her is when she finds that he’s broken you know on ah a late night with friends broken a picture that had that she had taken from Arthur. And she had kept all this time and she finds a remnant of it in the garbage. Would that have been the last straw for you?
BrookI would like to say that I would have chosen to end the relationship ship sooner because you know they’re just right at the verge of getting married. But I do think that that was such a telling display of his character because she had asked him about it earlier where did this go and he you know lies and says oh it’ll turn up you know he knew exactly what had happened and instead of just being upfront. And so I think it was a good turning point you know in the story. I will note that we don’t get that in the movie and I missed it I wanted something I wanted that fiancé of hers to do something pivotal to make that um decision more meaningful I think so so yeah I think it I think it would be the last straw for me.
SarahAnd ah another difference between the book and the movie is how she confronts Dean, the one boy who survived um the the shooting. And I think I preferred how she did it in the book to the way that it happened in the movie. I don’t think it was as impactful um in the movie.
BrookYeah I agree.
SarahAnd I guess I I like to think that if I’d had my choice of those two ways that she did those confrontations, I would have done it the way that she did it in the book.
BrookUm, yes, good point. Yeah, it was much more. Um, she was much more powerful and confident in the book. I. As we’re talking about some of the differences between the book and the movie. Um, and we we see this a lot right? Movies have to be paired down. You can’t cover all this subplots and things. But Mr. Larson is a big part of the book and he barely appears in the movie. I wonder, Sarah, do you think that that’s partly because her connection with him was so inappropriate in the book? A 14 year old girl spending a lot of time with Mr. Larson and honestly talking about how she was attracted to him. Um, but we don’t see that in the movie and I kind of think it was a wise choice just because of that of the ethics of it. What do you think?
SarahI think I agree. But I you know I think I think Mr. Larson provided some of that stability that she didn’t have with any of the other adults who were around her. But, you’re right, there was a lot more of him in the in the book.
BrookWell, Sarah this has been a little bit different than our other. “What Would you Do Episodes”. But I sure had a lot of fun talking with you about it.
SarahI agree Brook um, and yeah, thank you for suggesting it.
BrookAbsolutely and thank you everyone for listening today to clue in mystery. I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.