“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
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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.