Bright Young Women by Jessica Knoll
Published by S&S/ Marysue Rucci Books
Publication date: September 19, 2023
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Historical, Suspense
Pamela Schumacher is the president of her sorority at Florida State University, a job she takes so seriously she doesn’t go out with her friends one Saturday night because she has too much work to do. In the early hours of the following morning this same sense of responsibility will uproot her life from its carefully laid out path, depositing her in the dark swamp of one of America’s most notorious serial killers. Bright Young Women is Jessica Knoll’s intense novel about the women whose lives were impacted by Ted Bundy’s final murderous rampage.
On pages taut with tension Knoll recounts events from the perspectives of two women. There is Pamela, who sees The Defendant (as he’s referred to throughout the novel) twice: the first time as he’s running out the front door of her sorority and the second, when she faces him in court as the only living person who saw him at the house that night. Then there is Ruth, a young Seattle woman who disappeared four years earlier. Her friend Tina reaches out to Pamela immediately after the Florida murders as she believes the defendant is responsible for both.
Through Pamela and Ruth, in chapters that move between the past and the present, Bright Young Women lays bare how the times allowed a weak excuse for a man to achieve such infamy. The everyday niceties of how a woman should behave collide against how those same beliefs worked against them at every turn when dealing with a killer, the criminal justice system, and even the loving men in their own lives. Knoll inhabits this mindset so thoroughly that as the pages pass the reader is both lulled and appalled by the learned behavior of young women determined to always be nice, not make any trouble, and defer to authority at all times.
In the same way, Knoll seeds Bright Young Women with small details that bring characters to life in a single sentence. Whether it’s one of the victim’s love of art or her descriptive abilities regarding Ruth’s cold mother trying to be nice to her:
My mother never paid me compliments, and it must have been like sifting through a drawer of sharp knives for a blanket. Her mind wasn’t where you looked for something soft and warm.
it all comes together in a novel that is perfectly paced and unstoppable in its pull on the reader.
Knoll could have created this atmosphere with sensationalistic or gruesome details, but she refuses to go there. Instead, she systematically tears down the myth of Bundy as a suave, charismatic, accomplished man whose intellect allowed him to go undetected on a killing spree spanning the country. She has no patience for this chimera created by the media and fostered by the criminal justice system, for whom it was better to aggrandize the man than admit, especially in the case of Colorado, that the police had thoroughly bungled their handling of the defendant. If not for their incompetence, hubris, and eagerness to bend the rules for a seemingly nice white guy, at least two women and one child would still be alive today. Instead, she calmly wields the scalpel that slices through the historical narrative of Bundy as brilliant and charismatic, leaving behind nothing more than the putrid carcass of an angry, little man.
Whether or not you’re sensitive (or care at all) about the sociological impact of patriarchal control on generations of women, Bright Young Women is an extraordinary novel of suspense. Working within the sphere of established facts, enhanced by her own imagination, Knoll exerts an extraordinary control over the reader. Not in a manipulative way, but with the surety of a confident writer. There is simply no questioning her narrative. You will read, you will be pulled in hard, you will believe. Ultimately, Bright Young Women is fictional, just like virtually every lie manufactured by and about The Defendant. Brilliant.
In the mood for more dark reading from the victim’s perspective? Try The Quiet Tenant.
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