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Dizzying Pressure in Jessica Knoll’s “The Favorite Sister”
The Favorite Sister is about a group of highly successful women who are participating in a reality show that ostensibly celebrates feminism. In truth, this series is a horror-show about pitting women against one another, making them feel insecure about their futures, and actively sabotages them if they ever leave the show. The result is a situation where feminist icons are put on unsteady ground, pressured to viciously compete, and then judged for competing as fiercely as they can. This leads to at least one mental breakdown, as well as at least one murder.
The book is marketed as a thriller or maybe as a mystery, but I didn’t find those aspects of the book to be very interesting. What was compelling were the characters and the philosophical points they made about the setting.
What Stood Out?
The story takes place in the world of famous women whose livelihoods depend on their fame. They pick these women via a simple rule: each has to be independently successful before they join (at first).
To thrive in this world, they have to compete hard. There are only so many spots “at the top,” according to the book, and this competition is no place for wimps. It’s a competition where cut-throats thrive.
Notably, when men enter similar competitions, we tend to celebrate how cut-throat they get. Yet, we don’t celebrate it when women do the same. This is an additional severe stressor for these women, who end up feeling cornered and resentful.
Compounding this, as mentioned above, is a reality show that further pits these women against one another, deliberately making room for fewer of them as a way to create conflict for the cameras.
This sounds like a lousy situation, but nobody can quit because this public hustle, this construction of a transparent personal brand, is a large reason why she is successful in the first place. To step off from the public stage would be a lesser-form of career suicide—especially because the show runners will sabotage their ability to promote themselves if they leave.
Finally, everybody in this world is supposed to be a champion of feminism. This adds pressure for a couple of reasons. First, everyone’s concept of feminism differs greatly from everyone else’s, so they direct a lot of venom and judgment at one another. Second, nobody’s ideal is possible to achieve. At one point a character calls feminism, “just another impossible ideal to live up to” (Paraphrased, my book is in the car).
All together, this creates a stew of blame, shame, panic, and pressure.
What a nightmare.
These characters are fundamentally reflections of the setting, an approach that reminds me a little of Alan Moore.
Due to the factors mentioned above under Setting, each woman is a mess of ideas and emotions, bounced this way and that depending on how her philosophy interpreted an event, or how somebody reacted to them, or even how successful somebody else is becoming. Her mental, financial, and even physical wellbeing is, after all, directly linked to her standing within the group and her popularity.
This affects some of them more than others, and each responds to this stress in a distinct and imperfect way.
A note: normally, it’s easy to say that a character’s flaws are what makes us love them. But in this story, it feels like you would get attacked for saying so—I think these characters complain repeatedly about this sentiment, saying it’s because men feel threatened by women who aren’t vulnerable; that men get to be well liked without being flawed. But the fact is, we love people who are flawed, and we hate people who aren’t, and it doesn’t matter whether the character is male or female. Perfect people are annoying.
There is a murder advertised on the back-cover of the book. After reading the book, I’m not certain how I feel about its inclusion in the story. The story would have been fine without it—better, I feel.
Its presence reminds me of the difference between Martha Macy May Marlene and The Nest, both by Sean Durkin. In Martha Macy May Marlene, Durkin sets up a compelling and hauntingly horrific situation, and he is free to explore it in whatever way he likes. He chooses to escalate the situation, however, and this added drama, rather than adding to the story, just threatened suspension of disbelief and weakened the other elements of the story. By comparison, in The Nest, Durkin was confident enough to skip the high-grade drama and this let the more mundane points of the story really shine, and his movie is far stronger because of it. The Nest is a lovely movie by the way.
I wish the murder in this novel had been left out.
The language and the characters/philosophy are in sync.
Each character sees the world through the lens of their personal philosophy. This philosophy colours everything in their world: it determines what they describe, how they describe it, whether they describe it, what aspects to describe, and how long to spend on it. On top of this, each character has a distinct voice and feels like a unique person. This leads to a very personalized perspective on the events of a given chapter.
Then, the next chapter might present the same situation from somebody else’s highly subjective perspective.
Stylistically, this allows Knoll to throw the idea of objectivity out the window, and lets the reader start to understand just how dizzying it is to try to make sense out of these complex social situations and expectations.
This sense of dizzying, ominous pressure is probably the key sentiment the story wants to convey, and the style was critical for this.
I watched Luckiest Girl Alive and was blown away, which was based on Knoll’s novel (Knoll also wrote the screenplay for the movie). After I looked her up, I found and read this book.
Does anybody have any other philosophy-intensive recommendations for future reads? This reminded me a little of Dostoyevsky, which was nice
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