"Bright Young Women" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
An engrossing blend of true crime and fiction makes “Bright Young Women,” by Jessica Knoll, a page turner that pulls you in as soon as you crack open the cover. Though Knoll loosely bases her book on Ted Bundy, a serial killer who murdered and mutilated women in the 1970s, the author never names him.
Instead, Knoll focuses her story on the train wreck of trauma left in his wake, women who suffered physically and mentally, and heartbroken families, their lives forever changed by the nightmare that might lurk a mere block away.
Knoll writes eloquently in this mystery/thriller, a literary cut above the standard fare often found in an over-populated genre. Her characters elicit empathy and the manner in which she crafts her newest makes this must-read genius, keeping us on the edge of our seats until the smart, satisfying conclusion.
Knoll’s narrative focuses on two central characters, offering intriguing back stories and details on both during varying time periods. The book begins in Tallassee, in 1978, where we meet Pamela, president of Florida State University’s most respected sorority, an intelligent, responsible young woman.
When Pamela hears something amiss in the sorority house one night, she doesn’t anticipate a crime—she assumes the man she fleetingly sees dashing from a room is her best friend Denise’s on-and-off boyfriend. Denise knows it’s totally against the rules and Pamela is irritated.
It’s Pamela’s initial suspicion of the boyfriend that muddies the inept police proceedings as the investigation gets underway—two girls were brutally murdered, Denise and another sorority sister, and two other girls in the house were nearly beaten to death. Pamela is distraught and heartbroken. She was the only eye witness, and it’s Pamela who comes under fire, the authorities continuing to blame the boyfriend for the murders, his checkered past and violent temper making him suspect.
After Knoll captivates us with the shocking dormitory murders, the action shifts four years back and Knoll nails it again by introducing Ruth, a young woman attending a grief support group following her father’s sudden death.
At the meeting, Ruth meets a woman therapist who will make a connection to Ruth’s eventual disappearance and the dormitory murders. Ruth is recently divorced and is living with her mother, a strange bird who tries to control Ruth’s every move—until Ruth meets the grief therapist. Soon their relationship becomes more serious than Ruth could have imagined, much to Ruth’s mother’s distaste.
While I had initial concern that “Bright Young Woman” might be too grisly, I plunged ahead with eyes a bit squinted when the serial killer struck, but the scenes I’d conjured in my brain were far worse than any Knoll laid bare.
“Bright Young Woman” is a heart-pounding book with marvelous characters, a thriller that will hold strong appeal for many. Readers are certain to burn the midnight oil with Knoll’s newest.