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***NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER***
“Engrossing…Deliciously savage and wildly entertaining.”—People Magazine (Book of the Week)
From Jessica Knoll—author of Luckiest Girl Alive, the instant New York Times bestseller and the bestselling debut novel of 2015—comes a blisteringly paced thriller starring two sisters who join the cast of a reality TV series. One won’t make it out alive. So…who did it?
When five hyper-successful women agree to appear on a reality series set in New York City called Goal Diggers, the producers never expect the season will end in murder…
Brett’s the fan favorite. Tattooed and only twenty-seven, the meteoric success of her spin studio—and her recent engagement to her girlfriend—has made her the object of jealousy and vitriol from her castmates.
Kelly, Brett’s older sister and business partner, is the most recent recruit, dismissed as a hanger-on by veteran cast. The golden child growing up, she defers to Brett now—a role which requires her to protect their shocking secret.
Stephanie, the first black cast member and the oldest, is a successful bestselling author of erotic novels. There have long been whispers about her hot, non-working actor-husband and his wandering eye, but this season the focus is on the rift that has opened between her and Brett, former best friends—and resentment soon breeds contempt.
The Favorite Sister explores the invisible barriers that prevent women from rising up the ranks in today’s America—and offers a scathing take on the oft-lionized bonds of sisterhood, and the relentless pressure to stay young, relevant, and salable.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||6.10(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Favorite Sister
Would-be yoga instructor number four has punk blond hair and a bodybuilder’s tan. Her name is Maureen and she’s an ex-housewife who has spent the last seven years working on a documentary about the exodus of the Anlo-Ewe tribe from Notsé to the southeastern corner of the Republic of Ghana. If it were up to me, I’d say look no further.
“Thank you for coming all the way up here to see us,” Kelly says with a pleasant smile she doesn’t intend Maureen to ever see again. I know she decided against her the moment she took off her coat to reveal her pink sports bra and mommy gut. Kelly never got mommy gut after she had a baby, and so she believes mommy gut is not a result of biology but a choice. Wrong choice.
I’ve stayed mostly silent during the interview—this is Kelly’s thing—though not in writing—but Maureen turns to me, wringing her hands, shyly.
“At the risk of sounding like a total brownnoser,” she says, “I can’t leave here without saying how lucky this generation of young girls is to have someone like you on their TV screens. Maybe I would have come into my own sooner if I had someone like you to show me how great life can be when you embrace your authentic self. Would have saved my kids a lot of fucking grief.” She slaps a hand over her mouth. “Shit.” Her eyes go wide. “Shit!” Wider still. “Why can’t I stop? I’m so sorry.”
I glance at my twelve-year-old niece sitting in the corner, texting deafly. She wasn’t supposed to be here today, but the babysitter’s dog ate a grape. Toxic, apparently. I turn back to Maureen. “How. Dare. You.”
The silence stretches, uncomfortably. Only when it becomes unbearable do I flash her a grin and repeat, “How fucking dare you.”
“Oh, you’re kidding!” Maureen doubles over with relief, resting her hands on her knees. She releases a breath between her teeth; half whistle, half laugh.
“Easy,” my sister mutters, reminding me of our mother in two terrifying consonants. Our mother could silence a car alarm going off all night with the slow turn of her head.
“Your daughter is stunning, by the way,” Maureen addresses Kelly, changing tack in an attempt to placate my stern-lipped sister, but it is the exact worst thing she could have said about her daughter. Stunning. Striking. Exotic. That face That hair. All of it makes the green tendon in Kelly’s neck throb. My daughter is not some rarefied tropical fruit, she sometimes snaps at well-meaning strangers. She is a twelve-year-old girl. Just call her pretty.
Maureen sees the expression on Kelly’s face and laughs, nervously, turning to appeal to me one last time. “You should know that there’s already a wait list for your book at my local library. Only two people ahead of me, but still. You haven’t even published it yet.”
I offer her the plate of Grindstone artisanal doughnuts. What’s wrong with Dunkin’? I wanted to know. But Kelly had read about designer doughnuts on Grub Street and insisted we stop in Sag Harbor on the way. “You get the bacon maple for that.” I wink at Maureen and she blushes like a much younger woman who married a man despite all those fantasies, starring her best friend.
“Do you get that a lot?” the New York magazine reporter asks when Maureen is gone. Erin, I think she said her name was. “Women who credit their coming out to you?”
“All the time.”
“Why do you think that is?”
I lace my fingers behind my head and kick up my feet. Cocky, straight women often call me with a giggle. “Gay looks good on me, I guess.”
Kelly makes that face our mother warned would stick. I wish she were alive so that I could tell her she was right about something, at least.
“It’s working for you,” Erin agrees, blushing. “Whew!” She fans her cheeks. “Where’s the bathroom in here?”
“Down the hallway on the left,” Kelly tells her.
“No, Brett,” Kelly says, quietly, as soon as the bathroom door shuts. She means Maureen. No, Brett, we aren’t hiring her. No, Brett, it’s not your call. I reach for Erin’s recorder and switch it off so Kelly isn’t caught fat/age/tan shaming on tape.
“Hey,” I hold up my phone to take an Instagram story of our surroundings, “the yoga studio is your baby.” I type NEW SPOKE SPACE COMING JUNE ’17. Click, done. Search for the location. Montauk End of the World doesn’t come up for a while. Service is wonky out here, which reminds me . . . “By the way,” I say to Kelly, “it’s out here.”
Kelly stares at me, blankly.
“You said thank you for coming all the way up here to see us. Montauk isn’t up. It’s east. You want people to think you’re an old pro at the Hamptons scene . . .” I pull my sweatshirt over my head and pet the static out of my famous hair.
This is, in fact, Kelly’s first time out here. A ticket to a comedy show, I realized, after mentioning it to the commercial designer I’ve hired to transform the abandoned hardware store on Montauk’s Main Street into a pop-up yoga studio. A pop-up yoga studio on Montauk’s Main Street. If you’re worried I’ve become more basic than the insult “basic,” you should be.
“Never been to Montauk before?” the designer had repeated back to us in slow disbelief, as if my sister had never seen avocado toast on a menu, or heard Justin Bieber’s music. He spread a palm over his throat, choking on Kelly’s quaintness.
And so earlier, as Kelly and I were setting up the space for the yoga instructor auditions, Kelly told me not to mention anything about it being her first time in Montauk to the New York magazine reporter who was on her way out here to document the first hiring call for the yoga studio.
I tried to parse her reasoning before asking about it. Kelly gets cranky when you ask her to explain things she thinks should be obvious, another fetching facet of her personality she got from our mother. “Why not?” I’d finally been forced to ask. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why it would be a bad thing for people to know this was Kelly’s first time in Montauk. I’ve barely been to Montauk, and, if anything, it better serves our “brand”—yup, still the grossest word in the English language—that Kelly has never spent a summer mainlining rosé in a slutty one-piece at Gurney’s. We are the people’s fitness studio.
“Because I don’t want anything that makes us look inexperienced in the press,” she said, flicking open a yoga mat. “I’m worried how it looks to our investors, like we’re little girls playing with Monopoly money.”
Well, I thought but didn’t have the energy to say, they aren’t our investors. They’re my investors. So don’t lose any sleep over it. But I let it slide. I have enough headaches in my life right now. No need to get hung up on the delusional statements of a stay-at-home mom who still hasn’t accepted the fact that her tubby little sister is the overachiever now.
And overachiever I am. Since filming wrapped last season, I’ve raised $23.4 million to expand the location of my spin studio, WeSPOKE. Coming fall 2017, SPOKE will open on the Upper West Side and Soho, and, if this yoga thing does well for us, we have our eye on a space just down the block from our original SPOKE location in the Flatiron, the premier zip code for boutique studio fitness in Manhattan. Not bad for a twenty-seven-year-old community-college dropout who, up until three years ago, was living in her sister’s basement in New Jersey.
I should be proud, and I am, but . . . I don’t know. I can’t help but feel conflicted about the expansion. I loved our scrappy little studio when it was a self-governing affair: There was no board to answer to, no human resources department, no numbingly dull talk of the market. Our seed capital came from an entrepreneurial contest I won when I was twenty-three. I never needed angel investors or bootstrappers, I never had to answer to anyone but myself. The grant money gave me the freedom to focus on the mission of SPOKE, which is and always will be to protect and educate the female Imazighen population of Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains.
Imazighen women and girls—some as young as eight—walk, on average, four miles a day under a gruesome 14 UV Index sun just to bring home a single jerrican of water. It’s a woman’s duty to provide clean water for her family, and the task often prevents them from attending school and entering the workforce later in life. Then there is the issue of their safety. One in five Imazighen women have been sexually assaulted on their way to the well, sometimes by groups of men who hide in the bushes and wait for the youngest walkers. When I heard this, I had to act, and I knew other women would be compelled to as well if I made it easy for them. For every fifth ride at SPOKE, we provide a bike to an Imazighen family in need. The bikes reduce the time of the water-gathering task (from hours to minutes) so that young girls are home in time for school and their moms can go to work. The bikes mobilize girls who haven’t even gotten their periods yet to outpace a gang of rapists.
That was my pitch, and not a single investor bought it. They were all men, and they all thought New York City women were too self-absorbed to care. But these days, it’s cool to care. It’s mandatory to support the sisterhood. Women are spokes in the same wheel, trying their best to move each other forward. That’s SPOKE’s mission statement. Kelly came up with it. Beautiful, huh? Myself, I preferred Get off your privileged ass and think of someone else for a change, but Kelly made the point that we’d probably catch more flies with honey.
Of course, when we didn’t, Kelly lost interest. She laughed at me when I showed her the article I’d clipped from the Out magazine I found in the doctor’s waiting room, detailing the entrepreneurial contest for budding LGBTQ business owners. That’s a long shot, she said, but I’ve always had a strong arm.
I’d peeled apart a folding chair and said, “The Hamptons are absolutely lovely and they should stay that way, but they won’t, not with pop-up yoga studios opening where the hardware store is supposed to be.”
Kelly had sighed. “There’s a client base out here, though.”
I’d set the box of Grindstone doughnuts on the seat of the chair. I’d already eaten two—classic Boston crème and blueberry basil with lemon ricotta frosting. The sugar remained a burning ring in my throat, demanding more. Better than an orgasm, people say about good food, but that isn’t quite right. Food is what happens before the orgasm, the building of something great, the wonderfully excruciating plea to keep going, keep going. Too many women deny themselves this pleasure, and I decided long ago I would not be one of them. Almost one third of young women would trade a year of their lives to have the perfect body. This is not because women are shallow, or because they have their priorities out of whack. It is because society makes life miserable for women who are not thin. I am part of a small but growing minority determined to change that. SPOKE is the first exercise studio that mentions nothing about transforming your body, because study after study proves that your physical body has so little to do with health. Healthy people are people who feel connected to their communities, who are loved and supported by those around them, and who have a sense of purpose in their lives. Healthy women do not waste their precious energy separating egg whites from egg yolks.
“How about this,” I said to Kelly. “I won’t mention anything about this being your first time in Montauk if you consider the free memberships for the locals.”
“No, Brett,” Kelly said, her favorite refrain. “Someone in this family needs to graduate from college.”
“Half a degree from Dartmouth is like a full degree from CUNY,” I pointed out.
“I’ll get a scholarship,” Layla had said, dutifully. Little perfect angel that she is, she had found a broom and was sweeping the area around the yoga mat, because it was dirty and the instructors were going to be auditioning barefooted. When Layla was born, the doctor told me she had 25 percent of my genes, but I think those cells have copied and split a few times since then. It was Layla’s idea to curate an Instagram account and online shop that hawks the wares of Imazighen women. The feed is filled with gorgeous rag rugs, pottery, and cold-pressed olive oil, and 100 percent of the proceeds go back to the women of the High Atlas Mountains. Just like her auntie, Layla thinks with her heart, not her wallet. We have Kelly for that.
“It’s not that easy to get a scholarship, Layla,” Kelly said. “Especially to a top school.”
“Uhhhhh,” I said, making prolonged eye contact with Layla, whose smile was a dare: Say it. “I think she’ll be fine.”
“Don’t do that, Brett,” Kelly muttered, plopping into a chair while her daughter continued to sweep the floors.
I walked over to her and rested my hands on the back of her chair, bringing my face close enough for her to smell the lavender rose poppy seed we could have just gone to Dunkin’ doughnut on my breath. “Pretending to be colorblind is just as offensive as the n-word, you know.”
Kelly covered my whole face with her palm and shoved me away. “Stop.” It came out an exhausted plea. Kelly is a mother, and heretofore exhausted in a way that I as a child-free individual running a multimillion-dollar corporation cannot begin to even contemplate.
Kelly had Layla when she was nineteen years old, in a confounding act of defiance against our recently deceased mother. Growing up, my mother’s shadow darted after Kelly as she moved between AP classes, piano lessons, Habitat for Humanity, SAT tutors, college essay editors, college interview coaches, Dartmouth, premed summer sessions, and finally, a fellowship with the International School of Global Health in North Africa that Kelly returned from motherless, pregnant, and more chill than I’d ever seen her. Our mom was far from the traditional definition of a tiger mom. Her fixed state was mopey, immobilized, one stain on her blouse away from crying. Kelly was the court jester, but instead of juggling and telling jokes, she got straight As and played Bach with soft fingers. When our mother died (took three strokes), Kelly was released from duty. Why she decided to celebrate her freedom by holding out her wrists for another set of handcuffs still escapes me, but then we wouldn’t have Layla, who, listen, I know on a subliminal level has to love my sister more than she loves me. But it doesn’t feel that way. Not to me and not to Kelly either. And it’s a reversal of fortunes for both of us.
Because when I was in high school, I was the least loved. I was smoking pot when I should have been in Spanish class, piercing my nose instead of my ear cartilage, eating white cheddar Cheez-Its for breakfast, and looking more and more like my mother every day, an egregious crime, in her eyes. I never understood it. Kelly may have gotten the thin genes but my mother and I got face. A boy in high school once said that if you put my head on Kelly’s body we could be a supermodel. And this is the problem with the way girls are raised, because both of us were flattered. One of us even gave him a blow job.
Erin returns from the bathroom, shaking her wet hands. “No paper towels in there,” she says. I stick my hands in my sweatshirt and reach out to dry hers. For a moment, our fingers intertwine through the terry cloth material, and we feel that our hands are the same size. I love introducing other women to the eroticism of equality.
“Thanks.” Erin is flushed. She takes a seat next to me, pressing play on her recorder with a cutely scolding glance in my direction. I lift a hand with a shrug—No idea how that happened—and a prism of light distracts her.
“Ah,” she says. “There’s the famous ring.”
I hold out my hand so we can both admire the gold signet I wear on my pinkie. “It’s a little cocktail-hour-at-the-club for me,” I say, “but I got absolutely no say in the design.”
When the show was renewed for the third season, Jen, Steph, and I realized we were the only original cast members still standing, and Steph proposed having rings made to commemorate this momentous achievement. She sent me a link to the website of a designer Gwyneth Paltrow featured on Goop, $108 for an inch of plated gold, plus the cost to have them engraved SS, for Standing Sisters. This was before the $23.4 million, the book deal, and the speaking fees that still haven’t made me rich, because it is very hard to be rich in New York City. Does Claire’s still exist? I texted back. On me, was Steph’s response. A lot of things were on Steph, and despite what she tells you, she likes it that way. Sometimes, I catch Kelly staring at the ring. She’ll look away when she realizes she’s been seen, sheepish, like a guy busted staring at your tits when you bend over to pick up something that’s fallen on the ground.
Erin’s attention travels up my bare arm. “Is that new?”
I flex my bicep for her. I am not the type of woman who gets a tattoo on the nape of her neck or the underside of her wrist. “A woman needs a man—”
“Like a fish needs a bicycle,” Erin finishes. Another Straight Girl Flirts with Me (And I Love It) should be the name of my fucking memoir.
“That’s so clever,” Erin gushes. “Especially with the reference to the bicycle.”
“Oh, Brett is extremely clever.” Kelly gets me in a headlock and gives me a noogie, her preferred method of attack whenever she feels like anyone is stroking my ego too hard. She likes to try to break off my Cher hair at the root. I sink my teeth into her arm hard enough to taste her Bliss body lotion, the only body lotion Kelly can afford at Bluemercury, and she releases me with a sharp cry.
Erin reaches out and irons my hair back into place.
“Can you please tell everyone it’s real?” I ask her.
“Hair is real.” Erin pretends to jot it down in a pretend notebook. “It’s interesting,” she says, “but I’m noticing a pattern here that the show parallels. You as the little sister to the group.”
“Mmmm,” I say, unconvinced. “I think Jen Greenberg would rather hump a hot dog than share a bloodline with me.”
Erin controls her laugh, but her eyes are twinkling with shared detestation for Jen. “I’m sure that’s not true.”
There is no love lost between Jen Greenberg and me. We were acquainted through the wellness industry years ago, something approaching friends that first season. Viewers watched as I grew close to her famous humanist mother, Yvette, who loves Jen because she has to and me because she does, and everyone thinks this is why we can’t speak the other’s name without a lip curl of contempt. The reality is that there is a gap between Jen’s onscreen persona (Vegan. Groovy.) and real-life one (Vegan. Mega bitch.), and I have no patience for that particular brand of inauthenticity.
And guess what? It’s okay that we do not get along. It is a dangerous thing to conflate feminism with liking all women. It limits women to being one thing, likable, when feminism is about allowing women to be all shades of all things, even if that thing is a snake oil saleswoman.
Erin continues, “I guess I just mean everyone has their role, right? You’re the baby. The scrappy up-and-comer. Stephanie is the grand dame. The one with it all—money, success, love. Jen is obviously feminist royalty and Lauren’s the straw that stirs the drink. Hayley was, I don’t know . . . I guess she was the normal one?”
And that’s why you’re speaking about her in the past tense. Hayley’s obituary came in the form of an Us Weekly announcement detailing her desire to concentrate on new and exciting business opportunities. As if the whole point of the show isn’t to document that very thing. I liked Hayley and I think she had another season in her, but she got greedy, asking for all that money when she was bringing nothing to the table.
Cast members drop every year and I see no reason to go into crisis mode worrying that I might be next. We all have a story that will come to an end at some point or another, no use making myself crazy trying to manipulate the inevitable, as is the way of some of the cast. Still, I’d rather deal with that than with my sister, buzzing in my ear the last few weeks. Would the producers consider her to replace Hayley? Would I talk to Lisa again? Would I talk to Jesse this time?
I submit. “I guess I’m kind of the underdog.”
One side of Erin’s mouth tugs down, wryly. “Well. If the underdog has three million followers on Instagram while the rest of the cast has yet to break a mil. But in terms of your socioeconomic standing, yes, though I’m so interested to see how this season plays out now that you’re catching up to everyone else financially. It seems like you’re really firing on all cylinders, you know? You’re in a serious relationship with a drop-dead gorgeous human rights lawyer—”
“Who volunteers with sexual assault survivors and speaks five languages,” I pad.
Erin laughs. “Who volunteers with sexual assault survivors and speaks five languages. Then you’ve got the book deal. The two new studios. You’re trying your hand at yoga. All of this, it’s going to cause a power shift in the group. I mean,” she smirks—not at me; at her, “it already has, hasn’t it?”
Kelly watches me, curious how this is going to go. This is the first time anyone in the press has asked me about her. Stephanie. My former best friend.
I gather my wits and say, “I’m not one for beating around the bush.”
Erin leans forward with a collaborating smile, as though to assure me we can shape this any way I want if I’m willing to spill the tea. “I heard you and Stephanie had a fight and are no longer talking.”
I speak around her, to Kelly, “It was on TMZ, right? So it has to be true.”
Erin shrugs, unfazed. “TMZ was the first to break the news about Michael Jackson’s death and the Kim Kardashian robbery.”
“I love TMZ.” Kelly grins at me, thrilled to see me in the hot seat. Kelly knows all about my falling-out with Stephanie. But unlike TMZ, and unlike what I’m about to tell Erin, she knows the truth, and I can count on her to keep it a secret. Sisters are reliably good for two things: hating and loving.
“We haven’t spoken in six months,” I admit.
Erin purses her lips, saddened by this news. But the sadness is only an angle to solicit more information. “I loved your friendship with Stephanie. It felt important to see a relationship like that between two women. Important and remarkable, especially for the reality TV landscape that feeds off women in conflict. And you didn’t—” She cuts herself off, searching for a better phrasing. “I don’t want to sound blamey. I guess I’m trying to understand how two women whose bond seemed unbreakable don’t reconnect given the serious revelations made by one in her memoir.” She waits for me to respond. I wait for a question to actually be asked. “Unless . . .” Erin squints as if to filter out everyone and everything but me. “Unless you already knew about the sexual abuse?”
I am prepared for this. “Stephanie is a really private person.”
“So . . . you did know?”
“Just because we’re going through a rough patch right now doesn’t mean I’d betray her confidences. Violence against women, and particularly women of color, is a cause I feel very strongly about. I would never want to speak for Stephanie about her own experience.”
Erin frowns and nods: Fair enough. “Clearly, you still care about her. Does this mean we’ll get to see a reconciliation next season?”
I gaze at the old cash register in the corner. There’s still a dish of Bazooka Bubble Gum on the counter. I’d like to keep that, if possible. Some original touches as penance for the fresh hell of athleisure that’s about to rain down on this unsuspecting corner of an innocent fishing village. “It’s really up to her. She’s the one who is upset with me. Maybe it’s for all the reasons you said. I know she’s having her big moment with her memoir right now, a moment I want to make clear is well-deserved, but maybe she liked me better when I was the underdog.”
Erin props her elbow on the folding table, resting her chin on her fist, giving me her best I’m listening eyes. “Or do you think it’s because you wouldn’t pass on an advance copy of her book to Rihanna?”
I do a double take. Not even TMZ knew about the Rihanna part. Yet.
“Full disclosure.” Erin raises her hand like she’s about to take an oath. “I called Stephanie for a quote earlier this week.”
It’s a good thing I’m sitting down because I’m pretty sure my kneecaps have liquefied. She called Stephanie? Does she know?
“I had pitched this as a piece about our new yoga suite,” Kelly inserts with an amicable smile. And it’s true, she did. I didn’t see the need to have a member of the press present for today, but Kelly wants it printed in New York magazine that she is chief of SPOKE’s first foray into exploiting an ancient and sacred practice for its low overhead.
In addition to being SPOKE’s bookkeeper and also a .000000001 percent investor (she generously threw in 2K of the money Mom left us in her will), it was Kelly’s idea to expand into yoga. The pop-up studio is a trial run. If it does well for us, I promised Kelly that FLOW would be her domain. But for that to happen, Kelly needs to hire some instructors. Before Maureen there was Amal, who blew something called a Handstand Scorpion and spoke too high, like a little girl. How could anyone relax into something called King Pigeon with that voice? Before that was Justin, who was otherwise perfect if not for his declaration that he would require a 20 percent raise to leave his post at Pure Yoga. Next! Kirsten’s capital offense was her uninspiring sequencing.
I paw through the stack of resumés. “Kirsten. I want to give her a call back. She was good. I liked her.”
Kelly squares the pile of resumés I just cluttered. “Not Maureen?”
I tug my sweatshirt on. The sleeves are still wet from Erin’s hands. “Bitch should have preordered my book.”
“Jesus,” Kelly gasps, horrified. “Please tell me that’s off the record, Erica.”
Erica. Not Erin. Panic pole-axes me. Have I been calling an important reporter by the wrong name all morning? I retrace our conversation and take a metaphorical exhale, realizing I’m in the clear. Names are my thing. I’m slipping. I’ve allowed this Stephanie pettiness to distract me. Thank God for Kelly, who handles the details so that I can focus on the big picture. I remind myself this is why I need her around. Because lately, I’ve been thinking that maybe I don’t.
Kelly reaches for the passenger-side sun visor and flips it open, hauling her twenty-pound makeup kit into her lap. She brought the whole thing with her, like some kind of traveling theater dancer.
“I’ll be really quiet,” Layla says from the back seat.
“Layls, honey, it’s not appropriate,” Kelly says, glazing her lips with a gloss so thick and pink it could be the coating on the strawberry doughnut no one wanted. Her nice clear skin doesn’t need the airbrush foundation she thinks it does and she’s put a meticulous, embarrassing wave in her hair. I don’t know much about fashion or designer doughnuts—neither does Kelly, but she’s trying and only occasionally hitting the mark—but I know that no woman in New York is spending hours trying to make her hair look messy anymore. At least her outfit looks good. She showed up at my apartment last week with ten abominably short dresses. I was tempted to let her meet Jesse looking like she was attending a divorce party at a lounge in Hoboken, but then I remembered how every August, Mom would take only Kelly shopping for new school clothes. Her rationale was that most little sisters wear their older sister’s clothes, and why should she have to pay for two wardrobes just because I couldn’t get ahold of myself? As though my skinny self was on the lam and I was expected to chase after her, a normative body bounty hunter, spinning a lasso above my head. Every August at the Gap cash register, Kelly would pretend to change her mind about a pair of jeans, or a flannel button-down, and run back into the dressing room to find the item of clothing she wanted to replace it with. What she would really do is grab something in my size so that I had at least one new item of clothing with which to start the school year. One time, I came downstairs in a gray waffle sweatshirt, a premier selection from the Gap’s 1997 fall sportswear collection, and just as Mom started to say something, Kelly cried, “I got a B-minus on my Spanish quiz!” It was the Courtney family equivalent of taking a bullet. That’s a fucking sister. And so, I asked my girlfriend if she would lend Kelly that Stevie Nicks–looking dress she bought on the top floor of Barneys that Zara is also selling for a tenth of the price. Arch and my sister wear the same size. Arch and my sister have gotten ahold of themselves.
“It’s not like you planned it like this,” I say. “The babysitter fell through.”
“For fuck’s sake, Brett!” Kelly turns away from the mirror, only her bottom lip pink. Sure, it’s okay for her to curse in front of Layla. “Be on my side for once. Be on my side for this.” Kelly is a nervous wreck for this meeting because she actually thinks she has a chance, though Jesse Barnes, creator and executive producer of the number two reality program in the highly prized eighteen- to forty-nine-year-old demographic on Tuesday nights, would never seriously consider casting her in Hayley’s vacant spot. But as soon as New York mag suggested photos of the pop-up yoga studio on site, Kelly started: What if we swung by Jesse’s after for lunch? Jesse spends almost every weekend of the year in her Montauk house, even during the off-season, and Kelly has now gotten it into her head that her way on to the show is through Jesse, even though I told her that Jesse is too senior to get involved at the casting level. Lisa, our showrunner, is the one Jesse trusts to make those decisions. But Kelly tried Lisa last year and both of us got a caning for it. DEAR FUCKING BRETT, Lisa wrote me after the coffee meeting I arranged between the two, THANKS FOR OMITTING THE FACT THAT YOUR SISTER HAS FUCKING UDDERS AND WASTING MY FUCKING TIME.
I didn’t tell Lisa that Kelly was a single mother to a preteen girl because she never would have taken the meeting otherwise, and I needed Kelly to hear for herself that she’s not right for a show about young women who have eschewed marriage (generally) and babies (specifically) in favor of building their empires. But Kelly doesn’t understand that unlike mommy gut, motherhood is a choice. And in the eyes of Jesse Barnes, it’s the wrong one.
For half the year, Jesse Barnes lives in a two-bedroom, one-bath 1960s beach bungalow that hugs the edge of a mythical clay cliff in Montauk. Of course she has the means to knock it down and build some glass-walled spaceship like most people would do. Most people aren’t Jesse Barnes. A woman living alone in a big ole house almost always invites the question of how she’s going to fill it. Partner, kids, multiple rescue dogs, each with its own Instagram account. But a five-million-dollar shack in the most expensive beach destination in the country answers that question with gorgeous restraint. A woman in a home only big enough for herself is the ultimate fuck you to patriarchal society. It says I am enough for me.
We’re greeted at the door by Hank, still in his orange wellies from his sail earlier that morning. Jesse met Hank years ago on a Montauk fishing dock and started buying swordfish and sea bass from him directly. From time to time, she pays him to fix up things around the house.
“Hi, girls,” Hank says. I let that slide because Hank is in his seventies. But Diggers have rules. The establishing tenet: We’re women. Not girls. I am a twenty-seven-year-old pioneer in the wellness space who reincorporated her company as a B-corp without needing to hire a lawyer. Would you refer to my male equivalent as a boy? Try saying it out loud. It sounds non-native. “She’s in the back.” He beckons us with three craggled fingers.
Through the double sliding glass doors I see that Jesse is reading The New Yorker—ha!—on a lounge chair by the tarp-covered pool, a Southwestern striped wool silk blanket draped over her legs. Kelly is doing her best not to stare, but Kelly is incapable of affecting disinterest in the face of something fantastically interesting. Jesse Barnes, whether you consider her the first feminist voice of reality TV (the New York Times) or a feminist fraud (The New Yorker), is nothing if not fantastically interesting.
“Hi!” Kelly says, much too ardently, before Hank can even introduce us. Jesse stiffens, but she smiles, graciously.
“Kelly!” Jesse says, standing to give her a hug. Kelly has met Jesse before, in headquarters and at the reunions, but it was only for the briefest of moments. Up close, without camera makeup and beauty lighting, she finally gets to see what I see: that the heartthrob of the butch community has pretty pink cheeks and a pink chin, hair just a little too dark for her complexion.
“Wow,” Jesse holds Kelly at an arm’s length, appraisingly, “look how gorgeous you are!” If Kelly were my size, no one would call her gorgeous. Her face is inoffensive and unremarkable.
“Can you believe she has a twelve-year-old?” I go in for a hug with Jesse, Kelly’s glare torching my back. I know she thinks I’m trying to sabotage her by bringing up the fact that she’s a mother. But it’s not that. It’s that I’m not going to pretend like my niece doesn’t exist so Kelly can break one thousand followers on Twitter, which is what we would have to do in order for Kelly to be cast in Hayley’s spot.
The show is founded on the radical notion that women are people first, and once women have kids, they cede everything to the black hole of motherhood. I want to make it clear that this is Jesse’s worldview, but I don’t think she’s wrong either. We have choices as women, and there is no right one to make—especially because no matter what you decide, the world will tell you you’re doing it wrong. But when you make the choice to become a mother, it becomes the choice that defines you, fair or not. Case in point: the New York Times obit for Yvonne Brill, eighty-eight-year-old rocket scientist. She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. “The world’s best mom,” her son Matthew said. This is what the editors chose to lead with, about a woman whose inventions made satellites possible.
And motherhood is a limitation that women themselves have internalized. Go on, right now, and look up the Instagram and Twitter profiles of all the men you know. How many of them list father or husband to @theirwife’sname in their bios? Not many, I’d guess, because men are raised to view themselves as multifaceted beings, with complexities and contradictions and prismatic identities. And when they only have a certain number of characters in which to describe themselves, when they reduce themselves to just one or two things, it is more likely their profession, and maybe their allegiance to a certain sports team, than their family.
So there are mothers and unmothers, and while neither choice is the easy one to make, motherhood is at least the comfortable one. The one society has come to expect from us. Same goes for marriage, same goes for changing your last name to match your husband’s, for him being the financial provider, moving for his job and learning to make a mean beef stroganoff. There is a rash of reality TV shows that either depict this conventional way of life (Real Housewives) or the aspiration to this way of life (The Bachelor). Mothers and wives and domestic goddesses and aspiring mothers, wives, and domestic goddesses get to see their likeness represented when they turn on the TV at all hours of the day.
But there was nothing for the unmothers, and the unwives, and the women who can’t even scramble an egg. And there are a lot of us, more than ever before. A few years ago, when she was just thirty-nine and a network executive at Saluté, Jesse Barnes read Yvonne Brill’s obit, and then she read the Pew statistics that showed that for the first time ever, women were outpacing men in college placement and in managerial positions. More women than ever before were out-earning their husbands, starting their own businesses, and choosing to delay marriage and children, or to withhold from both customs altogether. Where are the reality TV avatars for these women? Jesse wondered, and when she couldn’t find them, she created them.
And because she was committed to assembling an ethnically, sexually, and physically diverse cast, I found a place where I fit, after not fitting in for the entirety of my life. Goal Diggers is the little corner of the reality TV landscape where women like me belong, and it’s unfair—and typical—that a woman like Kelly, with her big boobs and her tiny waist, her socially sanctioned and exercised uterus, would stomp in and try to claim a piece of this scant land for herself.
“Unbelievable,” Kelly declares. Jesse has led us to the edge of the property, where the Atlantic recycles itself brutally against the base of the cliff. These are not the turquoise waters of Carnival Cruise Line commercials or the gentle brown waves I learned to bodysurf at the Jersey Shore. This is the tank that housed Moby Dick. These are steel-colored waves that will make a missing person out of you. Of all the slippery bitches I know—and I know a few—the ocean takes it by a landslide.
“This house was originally built two hundred feet from the bluff,” Jesse says, sending an apologetic wink my way. I’ve heard this story many times over.
I raise a hand in permission. “No. Tell her.”
Jesse explains how the land has eroded—one hundred and seventy-five feet in the forty-one years since the house was constructed. She’s had to apply for an emergency approval from the East Hampton Planning Department to have the house relocated closer to the road.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to tear it down and build a new one?” Kelly asks, and I squeeze my eyes shut, mortified.
“This house was built on the site of a former World War II bunker and constructed from the structure’s original cement.” Jesse gives Kelly a tolerant smile and starts back toward the picnic table without having to explain further.
Hank has left silk wool and alpaca blankets folded in our seats, blue striped for me, gray for Kelly. We drape them over our shoulders and nod our heads when Hank offers us red wine. Jesse is watching Kelly, and when my sister realizes it, she frames her chin with her hands and gives a big, fifth-grade-picture-day smile. Sometimes Kelly is funny.
Jesse laughs. “I guess I’m just trying to find the resemblance.”
“We sneeze in threes,” I say, tartly. Maybe if my hair were its natural color and my thighs didn’t touch, Jesse would see the resemblance. Stephanie pays a bitchy therapist a lot of money to exorcise her demons and she once tried to play armchair with me, proposing that in high school, I gained weight and covered my arms in tattoos as a defense mechanism against comparisons to Kelly. Kelly was the pretty one, the smart one, the one who was going places. Sabotaging my looks, failing in school, disappointing my mother for sport, it was all less of an emotional risk than trying to measure up to Kelly’s legacy and failing.
And by the way, Stephanie added, the average woman in America wears a size eighteen. So you’re not fat. If everyone could stop assuming that I care about being skinny that would be so great. You’re showing young girls that you don’t have to be thin to be beautiful, many a freshly body positive women’s mag editor has started off an interview with me, causing my pelvic floor to seize up in a fit of fury. No, I correct them, I’m showing young girls that you don’t have to be beautiful to matter. The thinking that women of all shapes and sizes can be beautiful is still hugely problematic, because it is predicated on the idea that the most important thing a woman has to offer the world is her appearance. Men are raised to worry about their legacies, not their upper arm and thigh fat, stretch marks, crows-feet, saggy elbows, ugly armpits, thin eyelashes, and normal-smelling genitals. This is how society keeps us out of the C-suite—it booby-traps the way to the top with self-loathing, then reroutes us on a never-ending path of self-improvement.
“Did you find a space?” Jesse asks us.
“We found a space,” I say.
“Oh!” Jesse turns to me. “Where?”
“You know where Puff ’n’ Putt is?” Kelly interjects, annoyingly.
“The mini golf place?” Jesse asks.
Kelly nods. “We are right across the street. That hardware store shut down. It’s such a great location.”
“And we hardly have to do anything to it,” I rub my fingers together, signifying money, “which is good because I’m going to be eating a lot of ramen during this expansion.” Kelly pierces my thigh with a fake fingernail under the table. I wrap a fist around her finger and twist, doing my best, one-handed, to inflict an injury with a very racist name that wasn’t yet considered offensive when we were kids in the nineties. It was in the nineties that Kelly and I should have outgrown the roughhousing, only it intensified with age, and now it’s like we’re adult thumb-suckers or something else worthy of a spot on TLC’s My Strange Addiction. The longest break we’ve ever taken from our weekly wrestling matches was ten years ago, when Layla was two, and only because we realized we were scaring the shit out of her. She would come running in when she heard the rumbling start, sobbing and shrieking, “No hurt! No hurt!”
We never talked about stopping. We just did, for a while. Then one day, while Layla was napping, Kelly opened the refrigerator to find that I drank the last can of her Diet Coke. She dragged me off the couch by my ponytail and we went at it silently until it was time for Kelly to wake up Layla. And that’s been our routine ever since—quiet, private violence. We know it’s perverse. We know we should stop. But it’s an outlet for words that would hurt more to say.
Kelly bumps the table trying to wrestle her finger free from my death grip, and Jesse trains an eye on both of us, curiously. We sit up straight and give her our best You imagined it smile.
“We’re doing okay for ourselves,” Kelly says, rubbing her fingers together coyly. “Most Series A capital efforts raise between two and fourteen million dollars. We did almost triple that.”
“I’m not surprised,” Jesse says. “SPOKE is such a great concept.”
“Yeah, but that has less to do with it than you’d think,” Kelly says. “The key to breaking that fourteen-million-dollar glass ceiling is a unicorn valuation of the company, and, because it’s a private company, making sure that the valuation is disseminated publicly to create a bidder’s urgency in the private equity firm world.”
Jesse blinks like she’s been spun around on the dance floor one too many times. “Jesus,” she says to me, “she’s like John Nash with a great rack.”
I feel a ridiculous spear of jealousy. Jesse has been known to make somewhat lecherous comments to young, pretty women, but I prefer to be the target of them, thank you very much. “Kelly has whatever the opposite of mom brain is,” I say, pettily. Kelly makes Shut up! eyes at me for bringing up Layla again. I make them right back at her.
Kelly would prefer everyone think we’re on the up-and-up now that our funding has been so widely reported in the press. She thinks this makes her a more desirable candidate, even though being broke is what got me my job on the show in the first place. The producers didn’t initially conceive of a Digger in financial straits, but finding an enigmatic gay millennial proved a harder task than they realized, and Jesse was not about to cast the show without at least one of her people represented.
Once I was in the mix, the producers realized that I added some much-needed texture to the group. I’m the Greek Chorus, the one the audience is rolling their eyes with when Lauren sets off the airport metal detector because she forgot to remove both—count them, both—her Cartier Love bracelets.
Erin or Erica or whatever the fuck her name is was right that the power dynamics are about to shift this season, and I’m nervous about how that’s going to play out in terms of audience reception. I’ve always been the little guy, the relatable one, the favorite, and I want to make it clear that as I move up in the world, my triumph comes not from being able to afford rent on an apartment with a dishwasher, but in being able to give back to the women who need it most.
Jesse arches an eyebrow, sexily. She’s a forever bachelorette, a serial model dater who throws pizza parties on this very cliff with the likes of Sheryl Sandberg and Alec Baldwin. Viewers are always calling in to her aftershow, wanting to know when the two of us are just going to admit we’re having an affair. I have something to admit, but it’s not that. “In any case,” she says, “with a unicorn valuation,” she directs her smile at Kelly, “I don’t think you’ll be dining daily on ramen much longer.”
I point to the sky. “From your lips. But that money doesn’t go to us yet. It’s all for the new studios and our e-bikes.”
“Brett is being modest,” Kelly insists, tucking her hair behind her ear to pass off my girlfriend’s diamond huggie as her own. Neither of us draw a salary from SPOKE yet, but I make my living through speaking engagements and brand extensions like the book. The show pays less than five thousand a year and for good reason—producers wanted to attract young women who were already established, not those looking for a lily pad.
“The money will come if you keep doing what you’re good at,” Jesse says. She raises her glass. “Cheers. To the new yoga studio and the book deal and the Series A money and the new girlfriend. Jesus, chica. You’ve got a few things going on, huh?”
I do a little dance in my seat and Jesse laughs. “When do I get to meet her?”
“I’ll set something on the calendar soon,” I promise.
“Does big sister approve of bae?” Jesse asks Kelly.
Kelly tilts her head, confused.
“?‘Bae,’ Kel.” I laugh at her. “It means, like, significant other.” To Jesse, I explain, “She doesn’t get out much.”
“I know what ‘bae’ means.” Kelly tosses her hair. She got highlights for this meeting. They made her too blond.
Kelly turns to Jesse with an expression that makes my heart thump like a sneaker in the dryer. Shit. I shouldn’t have antagonized her like that in front of Jesse. “You want to know what I think of bae?” Kelly asks, pausing long enough to make me squirm. “We adore her,” she finally says, much too glowingly.
“So your daughter has met her,” Jesse infers.
Kelly looks mortified to have reminded Jesse she is a mom for the third time in ten minutes. “Yes. Um. My daughter. Layla.”
“Pretty name,” Jesse says, hollowly. She turns to me. “Brett, I’m assuming none of the other women have met her?”
“No. No one. Yet.”
“Not even Stephanie?”
“We met after Stephanie and I . . . you know . . .” I trail off and Jesse smiles at me like she does know but she still wants to hear me say it. “Come on,” I groan. “You know what happened.”
“Could I hear it from you and not TMZ?” She bats her eyelashes.
I sigh, using my hand to deepen the part in my hair. Massaging the truth for Jesse is dangerous, but Stephanie has left me no other choice. “She started to get funny after I got my book deal. Like . . . I could tell she wasn’t happy for me. There was no congratulations. It was just right off the bat, how much was my advance and this immediate assumption that I would ghost it. And when I started talking about moving out, it was like she wanted to scare me into staying.” I have lived with Stephanie (and Vince, the Husband) on and off for the last few years. The first time, we were filming season two, which made for a darling storyline. Then I met my ex-girlfriend and moved in with her. When the ex and I broke up last year, Sarah got the apartment until the lease ran out and in the meantime, I returned to chez Simmons. My stay was notably less darling the second time around.
“Steph just got very scoldy,” I continue, scrunching up my face remembering what it was like as things started to sour for us. “She kept reminding me that book advances are paid in installments and five hundred K actually isn’t as much money as I think it is because it’s doled out over the course of a few years and taxes and blah blah. I read the payment schedule in my contract. I got it. I wasn’t trying to buy a brownstone on the Upper East Side. I’m twenty-seven years old. I’m just looking to get my own place. It was very much the big guy wagging his finger at the little guy to keep me in my place.”
“And this was all before her memoir came out?” Jesse clarifies, resting her pink cheek in her small palm.
I nod. “And I thought what you’re probably thinking. She’s stressed. She’s only ever written fiction and now here she is, making these major and incredibly painful revelations about her life. I was willing to let it pass. But then . . .” I sigh. Up until now, nothing has been a lie. There is no turning back after this. “She wanted me to pass an advance copy of the new book to Rihanna. She wanted her to share it on her social, and she also thought Rihanna should play her if the book came out and was a big hit and they wanted to make it into a movie.”
“It would be a great part for Rihanna,” Jesse says.
“If Rihanna were five years older and straightened her hair to within an inch of its life and dressed like a local newswoman, then yes, maybe.”
“Come on now,” Jesse teases, thinking I’m just jealous.
“I can admit when someone has hit a home run. Stephanie is so brave for coming forward about what she went through when she was younger. She’s helping so many women find their voices. But that doesn’t give her a free pass to place unfair demands on our friendship. Rihanna attended one class and I didn’t feel comfortable emailing her out of the blue to push my castmate’s book on her. That’s a grimy move. I thought that as my friend, Stephanie would understand that. But that’s not how she saw it. She thinks my ego is out of control and that I’m holding out on her. That after everything she’s done for me, I owe her. Meanwhile, she was the one who insisted I move in with her. Both times. I’m obviously grateful”—I cradle my heart to prove how much her hospitality meant to me—“but I never asked. It’s like she only helped me so she gets to say I owe her.”
“It wouldn’t have been appropriate,” Kelly adds, coming to my defense with cool common sense. “We support Stephanie, but we are trying to cultivate a relationship between Rihanna’s team and SPOKE, and we don’t want to look like we’re taking advantage of her generosity. Class bookings went up two hundred percent the day after those pictures of her surfaced on People and any asks we make of her must be strategic.”
“And can I just add,” I say, raising a hand like all other points are moot due to this one, “that the book has come out and been a smash hit and Stephanie’s got the Oscar-Nominated Female Director attached to direct. She’s fine.”
“Have you reached out to congratulate her?” Jesse asks.
“Has she reached out to congratulate me on the expansion?”
“Good woman,” Jesse says. “Don’t do anything yet. Let’s get the first confrontation on camera.”
Hank appears, balancing a blond plank holding appetizers on the palm of his hand. He sets it in the center of the table and remains stooped to say into Kelly’s ear, privately but not quietly, “Your daughter is asking if you have a charger in your purse.”
Jesse pauses, a coin of sausage halfway to her mouth. “Your daughter?”
“Uh, yeah,” Kelly says, fumbling through the impossible-to-pronounce purse my girlfriend also lent her for this occasion. “My childcare fell through, unfortunately. I have her waiting in the car—she’s fine.”
“Are you not married?” Jesse asks, and Kelly uh-uhs like she just wants to move off the subject as quickly as possible.
And that’s when I notice it—the designing glint in Jesse’s eyes. I realize, feeling a little faint, Kelly didn’t just lose a point for having a kid out of wedlock. She gained one. I turn to my sister, looking at her through Jesse’s lens: single mom, hustling to support her daughter and make a name for herself. Articulate, camera-friendly. And that’s not even the best of it. The best of it is sitting in our junky car with a dead phone. Twenty feet—or however close the driveway is from the picnic table—is all that separates Kelly from getting the job. Because when Jesse sees that Layla is black, she will be smitten. That is a horrible thing to think, let alone be true. But for Jesse Barnes, nothing is more compelling than the tension between the conventional and the unconventional. Kelly, who looks like a woman who should have a big rock on her finger and a minivan full of budding athletes but instead chose to bring a mixed-race child into this world—independently—exemplifies that tension in a fresh and exciting way. I see that now. I just don’t know how I didn’t see that before.
“Alone?” Jesse frowns. “Why doesn’t she join us?”
I need to speak up. Say anything to keep Layla from Jesse. I don’t want my pure-hearted niece anywhere near this flaming Dumpster. Like parents who did drugs when they were younger but punish their kids when they find pot in their backpacks now, the show is only okay when I do it. “She’s got her phone.” I roll my eyes, good-naturedly, as if that’s all anyone needs to survive these days.
“Her dead phone,” Jesse reminds me. She looks at her watch. “It’s lunchtime. Is she hungry?”
“There are doughnuts in the car,” I say, too quickly.
Kelly turns to me, a curious expression on her face. Just minutes ago I was rubbing Layla’s existence in Jesse’s face, and now I want her to remain unseen and unheard. I know she’s wondering—why?
“Doughnuts are not lunch,” Jesse says.
“I can make her a grilled cheese,” Hank offers.
“She does love grilled cheese, doesn’t she, Brett?” Kelly smiles at me in a way I will slash her for later. She’s picked up on my anxiety—there must be a good reason I am fighting so hard to keep Layla from Jesse, a reason that may work in her favor. My sister’s main fault is that she knows me too well, I realize, as she gets up and heads for the car to release Layla on Jesse.
“Sorry about this,” I say to Jesse.
“Don’t be,” she says, “your sister is adorable. How old is she?”
I think on my feet. “She’ll be thirty-two in October.”
Jesse laughs at me. “That’s like six months from now.”
I hear Kelly and Layla approaching behind me, but I don’t turn. I stay and watch the delight bloom in Jesse’s face as her latest millennial disrupter actualizes.
“This is Layla,” Kelly says. “She’s very excited to meet you. She’s a big fan.”
“I admire all you do for women,” Layla tells Jesse, taking Jesse’s hand with the strong grip I taught her.
Jesse howls with laughter, making a performance out of clutching her hand after Layla lets go, as though Layla shook so hard she did damage to the bones.
Kelly is brightening, slowly, like one of those sunrise simulators designed to gently wake you in the morning. She throws up her hands, like this is what she has to deal with. Utter perfection for a child. “Layla is twelve going on twenty-five. Do you know she started an online shop to sell goods made by Imazighen women and children? She refuses to take a cut, but she figured out a way to earn money through sponsored posts.”
“You’re raising the next generation of Goal Diggers!” Jesse cries.
I can’t even speak.
Kelly sets her hand on her daughter’s head of curls, in case Jesse hasn’t noticed how beautiful they are. As though she is a Realtor, showing her around an exclusive new listing—you think the kitchen is something, wait until you see the master bathroom. “She’s pretty special.”
“And with such great style. Look at you and your Mansur Gavriel.” Jesse’s pronunciation is viciously French.
“Brett got this for me,” Layla says. She looks like a little off-duty model with the scuffed bag slouching next to her narrow hips.
And it’s true I did. And it’s also true Kelly tried to make her return it. It was a standoff that lasted nearly a week, with neither Layla nor I speaking much to Kelly, until finally, she spun on me when I asked her curiously why she was only wearing one earring that day. Because I’m fucking tired and sick of being ganged up on by the two of you. She can fucking keep the poorest-made fucking five-hundred-dollar bag I’ve ever seen in my life. It has fucking scratches everywhere!
It’s supposed to scratch and wear and look used and cool, but I thought better of telling her that in the moment. The only way to let Kelly calm down is to let her spin out.
“It’s going to look great on TV,” Jesse says.
My niece and my sister also lose the ability to speak as they turn over Jesse’s statement, to be sure they understand. “Wait?” Layla grins. She has a Lauren Hutton gap in her front teeth, just enough to give her angelic face some character. “You mean, like, I’d be on the show?”
“Would you like that?” Jesse asks.
Layla blinks at Jesse for a few seconds. Then she hoots so loudly a dog barks somewhere down the street.
Kelly shushes her, laughing. “But really, just like that?”
“It would be Layla and Kelly?” I say, stupid and shell-shocked.
“This is the perfect example of how to get more women into positions of leadership,” Jesse says, in that rallying voice I usually find so inspiring. “I was just reading how family-controlled businesses have the largest number of female decision-makers. The three of you represent a new path to advancement that I think would be very beneficial for our viewers to see.” Jesse seems to consider something. “We do have to take child labor laws into account, which requires permission from not only you, Kelly, but from her father. Will that be a problem?”
“My father is Nigerian and he lives in Morocco,” Layla says, with an accusatory glance Kelly’s way.
Jesse’s face clouds. “So does that mean it would be a problem?”
Kelly rubs Layla’s back, consolingly. “That’s all we know about him, unfortunately. I never got his full name and by the time I realized I was pregnant, I was already back in the States with no way of getting in touch with him.”
“Well,” Jesse says to Layla, “I’m sorry, Layla. But it certainly makes things less complicated on our end.”
“Shouldn’t we talk to Lisa about this?” I try, pathetically. One last bid to stop this train before it leaves the station.
Jesse flicks away Lisa’s authority with the back of her hand. “The show has gotten too narrow in its definition of a Goal Digger. We’re a shoal of fish, not a school.” She clasps her hands between her knees and addresses Layla like she’s five, not twelve. “Do you know the difference between a shoal of fish and a school?”
“Um . . .” Layla thinks. “A school of fish swims in the same direction?” How the fuck does she know that? I don’t even know that, at least not that succinctly.
“That’s right!” Jesse exclaims. “A school of fish swims in the same direction, but a shoal of fish is a group of fish that stays together for social reasons. The group should make sense, socially, but it doesn’t make for great TV when everyone is swimming in the same direction. So.” She sets her hands on her thighs, like the start of a race. “Let’s at least visit the process. Get both of you on tape. Submit it to the network, introduce you to Lisa, she’s our showrunner, if you don’t know . . .”
It feels like the iris of a camera is shrinking, narrowing, slowly isolating the terror on my face. I’ve always been afraid that Kelly was too smart and too primed for greatness to play second fiddle to me. It was only a matter of time before she became listless and bored, before Layla wasn’t enough, before she would make a play for the top spot. It’s starting. Her comeback. This will get ugly.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Favorite Sister includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jessica Knoll. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
From the New York Times bestselling author of Luckiest Girl Alive comes a blisteringly paced novel centered around Goal Diggers, a reality TV series featuring hyper-successful women in New York City. When Kelly, the older sister of fan favorite Brett, joins the cast, the producers expect drama. What they never expect is that the season will end in Brett’s murder or that each of the cast members has a plausible reason for wanting her dead. So . . . who did it?
The Favorite Sister follows an unforgettable cast of women, all with secrets to hide, all with one thing in common: unbridled ambition in a world that forces women to make shrewd calculations for professional–and personal–gains. In a story that shocks and upends expectations, Jessica Knoll offers a scathing take on the oft-lionized bonds of sisterhood, and the realities of a culture that pits woman against woman, sister against sister.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Discuss the title of the novel. Who do you think the “favorite sister” in the title is? Explain your answer. Did you prefer one sister to the other? Which one and why?
2. Brett notes, “It is a dangerous thing to conflate feminism with liking all women” (p. 18). Explain her statement. How do you think Brett would define feminism? Would you consider any of the Goal Diggers feminists? What do you think is the message of the show?
3. Discuss the structure of The Favorite Sister. What’s the effect of having a distorted time line? Throughout the novel, both Brett and Stephanie share details of how the producers of Goal Diggers use various tricks to enhance the feeling of suspense and drama during the season. What types of methods do they use? Does Knoll use similar tricks in her writing? Describe them.
4. Early in the novel, when discussing Brett, Kelly says, “Don’t get me wrong—I loved my sister, but I saw her too” (p. 3). Were you surprised by her statement? Do you think many of people in the novel “saw” Brett as Kelly did? Did your opinion of Brett change throughout the course of The Favorite Sister?
5. Did you find all of the narrators in The Favorite Sister reliable? Which ones did you trust? When and why do the Goal Diggers cast members lie? How does it help them to survive both on the show and offscreen?
6. Brett says, “Being right is a hell of a drug” (p. 276). Explain her statement. What prompts Brett to declare that she is “right”? At various points during the novel, several of the Goal Diggers cast members thinks they are “right” and feel they have the moral high ground. Give some examples. Do you think that the season of righteous indignation that the women have is justified? Does it lead them to make any bad choices? Which ones and why?
7. Describe Brett’s proposal to Arch. Did you think, like Kelly, that “A proposal like that sounds more like a business proposition” (p. 288)? Knowing what you do about the relationship, how might Brett view this assessment as a threat? What did you think of Brett’s relationship with Arch? Did you think that they complemented each other as a couple?
8. When Brett is interviewed prior to the start of the most recent season of Goal Diggers, Erin, her interviewer, asks what role Brett thinks she plays in the group dynamics of the show, saying “I guess I just mean everyone has their role, right?” (p. 18). Why do you think Brett is reluctant to answer the question? When Brett does answer, she says she’s “kind of the underdog” (p. 19) and, later in the novel, describes herself as “the Greek Chorus” (p. 30). Do you think that her self-assessments are accurate? Why or why not? What role do you think Brett occupies? If you were in a reality show, what role do you think you would take on?
9. Stephanie says that she can see the other cast members of Goal Diggers “are damaged in some way. We must be. Why else would anybody sign up to be tossed out?” (p. 161). Why do you think that people choose to appear on reality shows? Would you? What reasons do Stephanie and the other cast members have for appearing on the show?
10. When reflecting upon her friendship with Yvette, Brett says, “It’s a complicated dance, to be friends with the mother of a woman neither of us likes very much” (p. 90). Describe Brett’s friendship with Yvette, comparing it with Brett’s relationship with her own mother. What do each of the women gain from their friendship? How does Brett try to navigate their mutual dislike of Jen? What reasons do Brett and Yvette have for disliking Jen? What did you think of Jen?
11. Stephanie describes Brett as “approachable,” and says, “It’s part of what the audience loved about Brett, part of what I loved about her, at least in the beginning” (p. 39). Did you find Brett approachable? Describe the dynamics of her friendship with Stephanie. What did each woman like about the other? Were you surprised to learn what led to the end of their friendship? Why is each woman so unwilling to share the true story behind their fight?
12. Yvette tells Brett “Nearly all women can stand adversity, but if you want to test someone’s character, give her power” (p. 93). Describe how each of the women on Goal Diggers reacts when they are in positions of power. Do they all use their power and influence wisely? Did you find any of their behaviors surprising? If so, which ones and why?
13. Several of the women in the cast of Goal Diggers have nicknames assigned to them by the show’s audience. Do you think that Brett’s nickname, the Big Chill, suits her? If not, what would you use instead? Discuss the nicknames that the other women have been given. What are the nicknames? What are they meant to convey about each cast member?
14. When discussing her marriage, Stephanie proclaims, “I am not a cheater. I am an outsourcer” (p. 207). Explain her statement. Is there a difference? Do you think Vince would agree? Describe their marriage. Did you think that Vince and Stephanie were a healthy couple?
15. Describe Layla. Were you surprised that Kelly allowed her to be in the Goal Diggers cast? Kelly says, “Kids should be disciplined, but they should never be unloved” (p. 136). Can you think of examples where Kelly enacts this philosophy? What did you think of Kelly’s methods for raising Layla? How is Kelly influenced by her own upbringing?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. While they are close friends, Brett and Stephanie plot their own “Lauren and Heidi feud” (p. 172). Watch the infamous “You Know What You Did” episode of The Hills with your book club. Did it pique your curiosity about what ended Lauren and Heidi’s friendship when you watched it? Compare Lauren and Heidi’s feud to Brett and Stephanie’s. How did the former inspire Brett and Stephanie?
2. When Brett stays at Stephanie’s apartment, Stephanie introduces her to the concept of “the Jesus year,” which she says is “the year you realize it’s now or never. You cash in your 401(k) to open an ice-cream shop in Costa Rica” (p. 168). What do you think of the concept? If you were to take a “Jesus year” what would you do? Share your ideas with your book club.
3. On the way to Morocco, Brett encourages Layla to watch Election, telling her, “It’s about female ambition, and the lengths people will go to extinguish it” (p. 219). Watch Election and discuss it with your book club. Do you see any parallels between the events in Election and Goal Diggers? Does Tracy Flick remind you of any of the cast members? Who and why?
4. To learn more about Jessica Knoll, read reviews and find out when she will be in a city near you. Visit her official site at www.jessicaknoll.com.
A Conversation with Jessica Knoll
Congratulations on the publication of The Favorite Sister! Your first novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, was a critically acclaimed instant New York Times bestseller. How did the experience of writing The Favorite Sister compare? Since your first book was critically and commercially successful, did you feel added pressure while writing this one? If so, how did you deal with it?
There was not just more pressure this time around, but life was busier. I wrote Luckiest Girl Alive while I had a full-time job as a magazine editor, and even though it was a lot to juggle, it felt much more manageable than writing The Favorite Sister. Over the last three years, I have written three screenplays for major studios, moved across the country, and addressed the long-buried trauma that inspired Luckiest Girl Alive. My emotional and creative energy were well below base, but I was also determined to write a knockout second book. I believe I accomplished that, but it was not easy and it was not pretty.
The Favorite Sister is told from multiple points of view. Why did you choose to structure the story in that way? Was it difficult to switch between the voices of the characters as you were writing? Which sections were your favorite to write? Why?
I wanted to tell the story from multiple points of view because I think in real life, people rarely see themselves honestly. We’ve all had that moment where we become privy to the way others view us, and it can be a real gut punch when it is at odds with the way we view ourselves. I wanted to capture that feeling of surprise for the reader—that Oh, I thought I had this character’s number but now I’m hearing about her from someone else, and I have to readjust. I wanted “reality” to feel slippery, like no one could be trusted, like anyone could be guilty.
While Stephanie is on tour for her new book, she shares lessons that she’s learned from previous book tours, including “no silk blouses” (p. 81) and “keep tissues at the ready” (p. 83). Did this advice come from your own experiences while you were touring for Luckiest Girl Alive? Is there anything you wish that you had been told before your first book tour?
These details are not things I picked up on my book tour for Luckiest Girl Alive, but I did experience some very raw and emotional moments with readers. I was so raw myself, having just revealed the details of my own sexual assault in an essay for Lenny Letter, and I came home feeling overwhelmed, depressed, and depleted. I don’t know if there was any way to avoid this, and if anything, it sparked a new phase of my therapy that taught me how to empathize while also creating boundaries so that I don’t end up crushed beneath the full weight of others’ trauma.
Before you were a novelist, you worked as a magazine editor. Did your background as an editor help you transition to writing full time? If so, how? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Magazines were a great place to get my feet wet, to refine my voice, and to develop a strong hook. It was also a critical networking opportunity. I love writing books, but I don’t want to write a book no one is going to read. You need people in the media to love and support your book, and I worked the connections I made over the years to ensure my book launched with a certain level of visibility. My biggest piece of advice to anyone who wants to write a book is be willing to hustle. Writers are creative types who may feel uncomfortable promoting themselves—I know I did—but it’s a necessary skill to develop.
In many cases the “rules” that Stephanie says the cast members live by seem to invert those of traditional reality shows on television. Were there any specific shows that you had in mind when you were creating Goal Diggers? Can you tell us about them? Why was it important to you to show how mindful the women on the show were about their behaviors?
We live in a world that rewards women for following the rules. When I moved to New York and started building my career, the rules for women felt more progressive, but they were still rules I felt I had to follow—no children before the age of thirty-five or I wasn’t serious about my career, no heels because they’re outmoded but here! Wear these five-hundred-dollar sneakers instead. They’re still rules that women have to play by to assimilate and get what they want, and that’s what I wanted to show—how much emotional labor is required of ambitious women in addition to the blood, sweat, and tears that go into any successful enterprise.
Luckiest Girl Alive was optioned and is being developed for a feature film. Many of the scenes in the novel were cinematic. Did you write it with a film in mind? What has the experience of seeing your novel made into a movie has been like?
I never come at a book with an idea that I think would make for a great movie or TV show. I come at it with a great idea for a book. Now that I have adapted three novels into scripts—one of them my own—I’ve learned that you can turn almost any great book into a great movie or a TV show. But the key to writing a great book is to make the reader feel emotionally connected to the story, and you will not accomplish that if you’re focused on writing something for a studio exec.
The Favorite Sister is incredibly intricately plotted. Can you tell us about your writing process? How were you able to keep track of all of the twists and turns?
I cut and cut and cut and rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. It is devastating to delete whole chapters, but it is also necessary once you get deeper into the story. I don’t outline—I find my way once I am in the trenches. Oftentimes a twist or reveal will occur to me, and I realize that in order to make it track, I have to go back one hundred pages, get rid of a chapter, and replace it with a new one. There were a lot of devastating moments with this one!
All of the characters in The Favorite Sister are so well fleshed out they could be cast on today’s reality shows. Were they based on any one in particular? How did you come up with them?
They’re all amalgams of Real Housewives. I won’t say who—if you watch, you should be able to identify which women are represented in the story. The relationship between Brett and Stephanie is derived from a friendship between two of the women on one of the franchises. I watched old episodes to familiarize myself with the dissolution of their friendship—it was a fascinating and heartbreaking story line any Housewives fan worth her salt will remember.
Many of the characters in The Favorite Sister are hiding secrets that are at odds with their espoused values. Were you able to identify with your characters and the choices they made?
I’m not hiding any egregious secrets like the women in the book, but I can identify with getting a little taste of notoriety, and the desire to white knuckle it. These women are survivalists. Not survivors. Survivalists. They will do what it takes to remain in the public eye, no matter how despicable, and then they are rewarded for it with more airtime and a renewed contract! In what other space are women rewarded for bad behavior? The Real Housewives are not concerned with being likable; they’re concerned with being interesting—how refreshing!
What do you hope that readers take away from The Favorite Sister?
I hope it’s a fun, juicy ride with moments of profundity about the monetization of girl power.
Are you working on anything now? Can you tell us about it?
I am working on three exciting projects that I am not at leisure to discuss at the moment! Once I power through those, I will get cracking on my third novel, which is based on one of the most fascinating true crime cases of the century.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Was on the waiting list for a couple of weeks and I did think that it would be a great read but I could not get past the first hundred pages.. To me it was very boring and did not intetest me at all. Sorry to say I do not like to give bad reviews AND I really did want to finish the book,, but I just did not understand what I was reading because of not being interested in the beginning.
The book was difficult to follow. Finished it just to say I did. What a waste of money!
I hate (Fake) reality TV, which could be a reason I did not enjoy this book. Unfortunately is our world and credit to the author for tackling it.
When it comes to The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll - OH YES GIVE HER THE STARS!! This is one of those suck-you-in-oh-my-god-I-hope-it-never-ends books. I was ABSORBED into this story, I dreamt about it, and I thought about it endlessly. The story follows a group of women who are millennial entrepreneurs on a reality tv show, including two sisters, Kelly & Brett. Going in, you know Brett is dead and someone is responsible - but you don’t know what kind of rollercoaster drama you are about to dive headfirst into. I loved everything about this book - the dark, twisting plot, the manipulative characters, the completely believable premise of the show itself. Everything in this book clicks to make you fall right into the drama, I was legitimately bummed this isn’t an actual show because I finished this book and wanted MORE. But most importantly- let’s talk about how Jessica Knoll is a MARVEL at how she writes women - legitimate, honest, complex women who exist out there. Women who make mistakes, screw up royally, have broken relationships, love their bodies, hate their bodies, want to be mothers, want to be businesswomen, have no idea what they are doing, are killing it. How she writes is beyond real - no cramming women in their cleaned up boxes of “good wife”, “mother”, “cool girl”, “hardass”, “feminist”. She makes her characters as messy and terrific and twisted as real life. She lets them live in the grey area and THAT is why I will read anything Jessica writes. Because it is refreshing as hell to see that complexity on the pages - we’ve all seen it, lived it, done it, know it. So friends, get a cocktail, get this book and let this be one of your perfect summer reads.
4 stars My initial thought on this book is that it was an addiction and reads like a reality show confessional. I couldn’t. get. enough. Let’s back up for a moment before I delve into why you need to read this juicy piece of gossip. I am in the minority grouping of readers who did not enjoy Knoll’s novel, The Luckiest Girl Alive. It was a book that came highly recommended to me and I was massively disappointed. So when I saw that Knoll had a new book coming out, I hedged my bets and gave her another chance (everyone deserves a second chance). I am beyond happy that I did because now that she is 1 for 1, I will be on the lookout for whatever she is going to cook up next. Now that we got that out of the way, on to the review. The story is told in 3 different POV. Kelly, in the present and Brett & Stephanie in the past telling the story forward to Kelly’s present day storyline. The story is about these women on a reality show, and the book actually reads like a reality show. It was amazing how I was able to see it all and picture this reality show. I don’t know if Knoll got some insiders info on how reality shows are made, but it feels exactly like how you picture it. Editors and Producers pushing a dialogue, creating “characters”, pigeon-holing people to being either loved or hated. I devoured this book. It was juicy, dark, twisty-turny and addictive (haven’t I mentioned that already???). My only 2 critiques on this book are 1). The chapters are LONG. I heart short chapters so that I get a chance to fully digest what I read. And 2). The end is a little bit of a cliffhanger. This is not really a spoiler, but I feel like it is something that no one else is mentioning. Now, don’t get me wrong, you will be very satisfied with the end and you do find out what happened. I highly recommend this “behind the scenes” story or love, sisterhood, betrayal and secrets. Thank you to Simon & Schuster for my copy of this book via Edelweiss
Many thanks to Netgalley, MacMillan and Jessica Knoll for an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Kelly’s sister, Brett, is dead and she is somehow responsible - or, at least in her own words, not innocent. So, by jumping from present to past, in alternating chapters, through different characters points of view, we find out what happened. Not only has there been a murder, but practically everyone has a vested interest in lying. Is it just to protect Brett’s image or is it for more selfish reasons on their part? The women in this story are all part of a TV reality show called Goal Diggers. They must be young and successful in their own right to qualify. Each woman has secrets to hide and uncovering them might lead to the answer of who killed Brett. You have Jessie, the producer of Goal Diggers, who controls whether or not you will get asked to come back for another season and seems to be willing to do anything to create an exciting storyline. She knows what happened to Brett and is complicit in keeping the truth a secret. Her underling, Lisa, does all of her biding and is known to manipulate the cast members. Lauren is the dumb blond who has a drinking problem and Jen is the vegan health guru whose empire would crumble if her fans knew she chowed down on bacon in private. Stephanie is a famous author and Brett’s best friend. She is married to Vince, a beautiful man who loves to live off of his rich wife. Is their marriage as fairy tale as it seems? Once inseparable, Stephanie and Brett had a feud at the end of last season that has divided the loyalties of “The Diggers”, as the girls are known. Brett’s sister, Kelly, is the latest cast member and Brett isn’t too happy. They are business partners but their sibling rivalry runs deep. As each chapter unfolds, you realize no one is who they seem, especially off camera. Each has their own set of secrets that, if discovered, could lead to their ruin and each of them has a reason for wanting Brett dead. So, a little while ago I read “Bachelor Nation” by Amy Kaufman. One of my complaints was that I didn’t feel like I got enough reveal of what it was like behind the scenes. I admit it, I am a reality TV junkie. I watch all the Housewives and was always curious how scripted these shows actually were. Were they really fighting? Were producers feeding false information to rile them up? Did they behave in outrageous ways because they know if they don’t have a hot storyline, they will be fired? I think that I learned more of what it is like to be on a reality TV show from “The Favorite Sister”, a book of fiction, than I did from Kaufman’s non fiction, supposed tell-all. (Yes, I know Kaufman’s is about The Bachelor but there are similarities) For me, this was the most interesting and exciting part of the book. You really got to see how they shape storylines, how they retake “spontaneous” conversations four times and how production will interfere to get cast members riled up. Oh, and yes, the alcohol flows! The murder mystery held its own and I wanted to read to the end to see what happened. The characters were well developed and complex. There were two major issues, in my opinion, that weakened the story. First at those junctures when the plot would start to move along, you would be inundated with tons of extra information that took you in different directions. At first, I would reread these parts, thinking that there was some important clue that I needed to know, or that I was missing something,
Five women together on a reality TV show. The show is about successful females who supposedly support each other. While the successful part is true, the supporting each other is not. What results is a lot of infighting, back stabbing and one upmanship. Sadly, I have worked with groups of women and think the author was pretty spot on with how women can sometimes behave when in a group setting. Note that I say sometimes and not always. It's been a while since I've been in that environment and I can only hope that things have changed. I did find the first half of this book to be slow going. Once the women got together for the new season of their show, the storyline picked up significantly. I was pleased with how the author chose to end this. After spending time we these mostly amoral women, it was good to see someone decide to rething their behavior. I received this from Simon & Schuster via Netgalley.
I received an arc of this book. At first I feel it started slow and uneventful. By the end I feel it was a good read and was interesting.
I will start by saying that I am not a big fan of reality television (with the exception of The Bachelor franchise), so this may not have been a book I would have picked up to read if I hadn't loved Jessica Knoll's previous book Luckiest Girl Alive. I started this book hoping I would love it, and all things considered I did enjoy it, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is a fan of the Housewives franchise. This book starts with the revelation that one of the cast members of the reality television show "Goal Diggers" about young successful women has been murdered. (no spoilers, it's actually the premise of the book). Knoll then sets up the story from the start so that readers can follow it through and use their detective skills to try to guess "who done it". As always, Knoll developed all the main characters well, and made the story both interesting and exciting even for us "non-lovers of reality television", and that is no mean feat. **I received this book from Netgalley for the purpose to read and provide an unbiased review.
I so enjoyed Jessica Knoll’s first novel, I thought it was original and had a great twist, so I was exceptionally thrilled to receive an advance copy of her latest novel from #netgalley. Unfortunately, I didn’t love the book, it felt like it took forever to read. There wasn’t much thrill or mystery to the story, There were no slow reveals of interesting plot points, rather they were lobbed at the reader with very little intensity. I found it difficult to remain focused on the story, often when the plot seemed to be advancing, we were dragged back into the past for a lengthy description of a time gone by. The characters as a whole were unlike able, so I really didn’t have a vested interest in “whodunit”. The setting of a reality series was interesting, and a lot of her dialogue felt fresh but honestly the book felt so long and dragged that I doubt I will pick up a third novel by the author.
I had a really hard time getting into this book. I picked it up about 3 times but just could not get into it. I don't think it is my style of writing. The book is about two sisters who join in a realty show and something terrible happens. The plot of the book sounded really good and I am sure for a lot of readers they will love this book. It has a lot of twist and turns.
This book is such a fun read! It's about a reality show called "Goal Diggers," featuring some five super successful women in NYC. Among other characters, you'll meet Brett, Kelly and Stephanie all cast mates on the show. Brett and Kelly also happen to be sisters, hiding a dark secret. Underneath the surface, this book is about what it's like to be a woman in today's America. Whether it be the difficulty of trying to climb up the corporate ladder, or what sisterhood is portrayed as, or the pressure to stay young, vibrant and beautiful, this book will hit somewhere that every woman can relate to.
I was so excited to read this book because of Jessica's debut novel and I was not disappointed. I love it when you can't count on your characters - when they're narrating false truths. It keeps the reader guessing everything that is happening and it made it so I couldn't put this book down. Knoll has done an amazing job once again at showing us real relationships and the struggles that accompany them. READ THIS NOW, PEOPLE!
Interesting - a book set around a reality TV show called "Goal Diggers" starring young professional women who have "made it". The story is told alternating both past and present time and from several different points of view so I was somewhat lost the first half of the book and kept backtracking to see whose point of view I was hearing. Once I had an understanding of who the characters were, the second half of the book was much better. This reminded me very much of the reality TV show "Desperate Housewives". The central theme of the book is "what happened to Brett". There are some surprising twists in the second half that had me intrigued. The book was not what I expected, but it ended up being a good story and probably gave a good picture of what could happen behind the scenes in reality TV. I think this might appeal more to 20 - 30 year old readers. Thanks to Jessica Knoll and Simon & Schuster through Netgalley for an advance copy.
I was given a free copy of this book for my honest review from NetGalley. There is nothing I love more than a good plot twist! This book was full of them. The ending kept you up at night to finish reading. The Favorite Sister is about a reality show "Goal Diggers" following 5 successful millennial women who have made their own money. This book gives you a glance of the behind the scenes of reality shows. The plot then thickens when you find out early on that Brett, one of the stars, is now dead and replaced by her sister Kelly. Overall, I enjoyed this book. It reminds me a lot of real housewives shows, but takes it to a deeper level. One of my favorite things about this book was the complexity of it's characters. They didn't fall into the bucket of purely good or evil. It explored a more human side of people where it's not so black and white. It also explores an aspect of feminism that is not normally mentioned while the women try to walk the fine line of likability and success. I only gave this book 4 stars because the beginning is a little rough to read. It's a slow start and jumps around through characters a little quickly. It does reach a tipping point where it gets in a nice groove and the rest of the book is a real page turner. I would recommend this book, just be patient with it in the beginning. The book progresses in a way where you almost forget Brett was murdered since it isn't mentioned for so long. Just be sure to pay attention to who the narrator is and the time period. Overall, not my favorite book but I would recommend to a friend!
As a fan of some "reality" or unscripted tv shows, I found this behind the scenes story very interesting. The descriptions really fit what I imagined happening on this type of show. Although we find out early on who suffers an untimely death, there are many surprises throughout. And when you think you have everything figured out, you will be wrong! The ending completely blew me away!!!
The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll is a recommended thriller for fans of reality based TV. We know from the start that season 4 of Goal Diggers, the New York City based reality series that showcases entrepreneurial woman, results in murder. The question is why was Brett Courtney murdered and who did it? On Goal Diggers all five of the female cast members compete with each other for audience popularity and a greater share of social media hype to stay on the show. Brett, the youngest cast member, is the owner of a spin studio franchise and quick to make it clear that being skinny does not mean being healthy. She's moving in with her girlfriend this season, which will surely up ratings. Returning cast members include: Stephanie Simmons, the oldest, is a bestselling author of erotic novels and the first black cast member; Jen Greenberg, the vegan owner of a juice bar line and health food guru; Lauren Bunn, a dating website creator and known as Lauren Fun! on the show. The latest addition to the show is Brett's older sister, Kelly, a single mother who runs Brett's ever expanding business empire. Jesse is the network executive who controls the focus of the series and what will be highlighted. The focus for season four will be on the rift and resentment that is growing between Stephanie and Brett, former best friends. The narrative is told through alternating first person accounts of what happened before and during the production of season 4. Excerpts from Jesse's interview with Kelly after Brett's murder open and close the book, and are also included a few times in-between the first person accounts. This clearly demonstrates how muddy the line between truth and fiction is in the reality TV show and real life. The start is slow as we are introduced to the woman, their lives, and getting a glimpse into what they are thinking or scheming. You will need to keep track of who is talking in each chapter until you get a grip on the characters. As events unfold with secrets revealed and lies exposed, it becomes clear that the tension is going to boil over and something bad is going to happen. There are humorous moments in The Favorite Sister and Knoll does manage a message about the reality TV obsession - the striving for a few more minutes of public fame, and the need to appear to be young and relevant in order to stay in the public spotlight. While very well-written, the problem with The Favorite Sister for me is that I simple couldn't muster the capacity to care about these women. They all seemed like caricatures of a type rather than real people. Perhaps it is because I don't watch reality TV shows and don't care about them. Also my lack of following pop culture, etc could have influenced how I related to the book. Knoll's gets points for the writing, the message she was trying to get across, and the ending, which was a surprise. I have a feeling that this novel will do much better with a younger reader (20s or 30s) and anyone who loves to watch reality shows like real housewives and... I can't even name any. Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster via Netgalley
Thank you NetGalley for my copy of this book. I had the privilege of reading the first book by this author, Luckiest Girl Alive. As it was in that book, the writing in this book is great. The characters are complete and well developed. The story line leaves you guessing as to who committed what crime and why. Very entertaining. As a matter of personal preference, I like this author's first book better. It has nothing at all to do with the writing or the plot, and more to do with my pre-conceived notion of the book based on the first one. This one is more of a well-drawn mystery, rather than a psychological thriller, which is great in and of itself. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. I was highly entertained and appreciative of the story and the writing. Read it and see if your guess as to the perpetrator is as off-base as mine was!
The Favorite Sister is a contemporary tale about ambition, greed, pop culture, the "five minutes of fame" so many Americans seek and the lengths to which they will go to achieve it. Spoiler alert: NONE of the main characters is particularly likable or sympathetic which is part of the point. Knoll takes readers into the world of a reality television series patterned after Bravo's Real Housewives franchise, spotlighting casting maneuvers and machinations, ratings gimmicks, and infighting among the cast members. The story is a droll commentary on relationships between women, feminism, romance, friendship, assumptions, and, of course, "reality" programming. At the outset, Knoll reveals that one of the main characters has died and the book appears, at first blush, to be a murder mystery. Ultimately, however, it is much more. It would be an excellent choice for book clubs because there are many themes and plot points worthy of discussion. (Thanks to Net Galley for an Advance Reader's Copy of the book.)
The Housewives reality series with a built in murder mystery is the center of the novel the Favorite Sister. We meet Brett, Kelly, Lauren, Stephanie and Jen, all suscessful women, most of them without a husband or children, self-made, Goal Diggers. At the beginning of the story, we find out one of them is murdered, as the story continues flipping between the past and now, slowing releasing all the juicy details. Who killed Brett and why? Many secrets are discovered along the way to keep you guessing who was the murderer. Thick with suspense, this book was even better than Ms Knoll's first novel, The Luckiest Girl Alive. I kept turning pages interested in what secret would be revealed next. And just when you think no more secrets could exist, you are hit with a few more. The last chapter left me surprised - the killer was not at all who I suspected. I received an advanced copy of this book for my honest review.
To distill The Favorite Sister into one category is to vastly reduce what Jessica Knoll does in telling this story. For one thing, Knoll shakes her fists at societal norms that dictate strictures and limits to women. Told through three perspectives--Brett, the youngest cast member of a Real Housewives-esque reality show devoted to women who achieved success without any influence from men, her older sister Kelly, and Stephanie, a bestselling author who also is black--you see the different ways our genders affect us, whether through age, single parenthood, marriage, race, and professional success. Knoll doesn't ask "at what cost," rather, she wants to know "why must a woman's cost be any different than a man's"? In a lesser writer's hands, such heavy sociological discussions might feel hamfisted or pedantic. Knoll proselytizes, yes, but in a way that makes you think as opposed to rolling your eyes. Why are the same behaviors accepted in men abhorred in women? Her three narrators each offer a different perspective, and it is critical that we get to know these women. You will find your loyalty vacillating from one to the other, and as various truths are divulged, you might find yourself despising all three. No one in this book is honest, even when they're lying. Each feels the need to resort to falsehoods in order to achieve her goals. Do men do that? Of course they do, but too often we excuse it in them because that's part of a man doing what he must. We judge women far, far harsher. The problems come in the last quarter of the book. You have to suspend logic a time or two, and you might find yourself asking, "What about ..." regarding a couple of dropped plot points. If you go into this book expecting a big fat suspense-thriller, you're reading the wrong book. There is a mystery, but it really doesn't come into play until well past the halfway point. Up until then, Jessica Knoll spends time introducing you to her characters and inviting you to trust at your own peril. Pay attention to the title. Jessica Knoll plays with that throughout the book, and, in the end, you might find yourself asking which sister really is the favorite? Or is it possible that no one is and no one deserves to be.
First of all thank you to netgalley and Simon and Schuster for allowing me this opportunity! I was very excited to get this advance copy and I fully expected to love it. I have heard great things about this author and my guilty pleasure is The Housewives series. I was not able to finish this book. I have only had this happen once. I usually push through and it always picks up. This story line was so hard to follow. The characters blurred into each other and I was unable to make a connection with any of them. I read 50% of the book and the plot never moved. I felt like I was watching a episode of Seinfield- reading about a bunch of nothing except it wasn't entertaining. I wanted to love it!
Reality TV, the latest craze. We think we are getting a peephole view of the lives of strangers, but what happens when the cameras stop rolling for five successful, competitive women is nothing short of deadly. You think the players on those reality shows can be brutal? THE FAVORITE SISTER by Jessica Knoll is a look at the rest of the story when egos, pride, jealousy and insecurity erupt and family rivalries boil over. Told from several points of view and alternating between past and present, this chaotic tale is filled with interpersonal conflicts, both real and contrived for the cameras as these powerfully intense personalities crash, clash and sometimes come together in the name of power and control. Is it the fault of these women that they can be so heartless or has society warped their sense of values in the name of success? Either way, prepare to enter the vipers' den... Jessica Knoll has colored a world behind the cameras in the fractured shades of a tumultuous storm. Trust is a weakness, honor is easily dismissed and family ties are similar to being wrapped in barbed wire. I found I could not relate or even actually like any of the five main characters. Points of view change abruptly and because their voices were so similar, it was jarring to play catch up. Too much vitriol, too many insecure egos and game-playing made this a difficult read to enjoy for me, perhaps because I am not a fan of the nastiness of reality shows and being part of the lives of these characters off screen was like an exercise in drowning in acid. That said, if you can dodge the daggers, the ending is worth the effort, because this author can write! I received a complimentary ARC edition from Simon & Schuster! This is my honest and voluntary review.
The Favorite Sister is definitely a millennial book for millennials and about millennials. I did not like this book in the beginning. The slang terms were not part of my vocabulary. I could guess the meaning of some and others went unknown. The characters were extremely diversified. The glue that held the book together was a reality series Goal Diggers. I hung on and as the book progressed I began to enjoy the story. The secrets and the ending were totally unexpected.