Jessica Knoll’s “Bright Young Women”
Jessica Knoll's "Bright Young Women" has such strong beginning and ending chapters, with stakes that are truly life-and-death, that the middle chapters are a bit of a let-down. The central thematic premise of the book is that, for perverse reasons, serial killers become celebrities and, as part of that mythmaking, the become in the popular mind handsomer, more cunning, and more intelligent than they are in reality. Meanwhile, the people who we should be paying attention to-- the victims, survivors, and families -- are trivialized.
Knoll is steadfast in keeping the focus on her two protagonists: Pamela, the only eye-witness of The Defendant (as Knoll coldly allows the killer) at a murder scene, and Ruth, a woman who has been missing since encountering The Defendant almost 50 years ago. Pamela's narrative comes as flashbacks to the night of the attack in the late 1970s, the pursuit, rest, and trial of The Defendant, and a pandemic-era quest to resurface and resolve the ambiguities surrounding Ruth's disappearance.
Ruth's narrative moves forward from 1974 towards her disappearance. This is the central drama of the book. As readers we quickly know there are only two outcomes for Ruth: either she is murdered or there is some deus ex machina plot twist in which she changes identities and walks away from her life. Knoll substitutes the mystery of what happened to Ruth for the typical beats of a murder thriller. Knoll still gives us familiar tropes: the hasty and condescending detective seizing on a red herring, The Defendant evading the law, a trial with a precarious outcome, and so forth. But Knoll is adament in defanging The Defendant's grip on our imagination and we know very soon that at some point he's caught, at some point he's convicted, and at some point he's executed.
Unfortunately, Knoll's commendable focus on two characters whose outcomes we pretty-much know makes the middle part of the novel a little less compelling. Here, we learn much more about the Pamela and Ruth, their inner strengths and weaknesses, their successful and damaged relationships, and their personal challenges and growth. This is well-constructed and written, but sags in comparison to the high-wire tension that begins and ends the book.