Everyone knows the term “serial killer” in today’s true crime-obsessed landscape. But Jessica Knoll’s Bright Young Women takes the reader back to a time before constant content about murders and those who pathologically commit them, though to say life was better then would be a vast oversimplification. Moving between past and present, Bright Young Women is a searing, feminist take on the mythology of serial killers that prioritizes the voices of survivors and victims.
It’s 1978 and The House, Florida State University’s smartest sorority, is prepared to take on the world. The sorority values friendship and achievement above all else, especially with senior Pamela “Pam Perfect” Schumacher as its president. But one late night, the pre-law student is startled awake and witnesses a strange man exiting the sorority house. Two of Pamela’s sisters are found gravely injured, and two are dead—including Denise, Pamela’s best friend and a protege of iconic artist Salvador Dali. Decades later, Pamela is a successful lawyer. The perpetrator—who left a trail of female bodies in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest before terrorizing Florida—has long since been prosecuted, but a still-haunted Pamela needs one final answer before she can finally put her ghosts to rest.
Knoll made a name for herself with her smash-hit debut thriller, Luckiest Girl Alive (2015), and Bright Young Women solidifies her status as one of the most thoughtful suspense writers working today. As well as brutal violence against women, the story investigates the ramifications of sexual assault, the complexities of grief and antiquated, destructive attitudes toward queerness. The killer himself is not glorified; Knoll describes him in bits and pieces and never names him outright, referring to him only as The Defendant. She keeps a tight, controlled focus on the novel’s women: sharp in their intelligence, fierce in their convictions and slowly accepting their own justified anger. In the hands of a less capable author, Bright Young Women may have been too much, but Knoll has crafted a primal scream for women past and present, navigating a world still designed to violently fail us.