Shipley Alum’s Debut Novel Unveils the Dark Side of Main Line Life

‘Luckiest Girl Alive’ author Jessica Knoll will appear at Main Point Books on May 14.

With a tagline like “Her perfect life is a perfect lie,” it’s no wonder Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive is flying off bookshelves. When protagonist Ani FaNelli’s wedding plans segue into daydreams about murdering her fiancé, readers know something is quite wrong. The answer lies buried somewhere in the dark days spent at the elite Bradley School.

Knoll grew up in Chester Springs and graduated from the Shipley School in 2002. She pursued a career in the magazine world, becoming senior editor at Cosmopolitan and, later, articles editor at SELF. Now living in Manhattan with her husband, Knoll drew on her experiences in both New York and on the Main Line for Luckiest Girl Alive.

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MLT: It’s hard to like Ani FaNelli.

JK: I wanted the main character to have a strong, polarizing voice.

My favorite characters are those who are layered and flawed, but have something redeeming in them. I played with that voice in a number of situations with different plots, then landed on TiFani Fanelli. When I found her groove, the story poured out of me.

MLT: Do you think of her more as TiFani, as she was called in high school, or Ani, the name she uses in her 20s?

JK: That’s a loaded question. I think of her as Ani. She’s taken ownership of her life without disregarding who she was in the past.

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MLT: Yet it seems that she’s ruled by her insecurities and a desire to be accepted by her peers. Does that jibe with your own experiences?

JK: Some of Ani’s pressures are pulled from my own life. The pressure to get married was a huge one for me. It seems to be a driving goal for a lot of millennial women. We’ve come so far in so many ways, but there’s an antiquated desire to land a man and show that you can get a proposal. I wanted to weave that into Ani’s story.

MLT: You put a lot of focus on Ani’s thinness and how much of her self-esteem is based on being a size 0.

JK: A certain type of woman wants to keep up appearances and play the role assigned to her. If you don’t conform by watching your weight, you’re punished for not keeping up with society’s image. I have a lot of anger about that, and I put it into the book. Ani is thin, but you see what it looks like to obsess about your weight [in the book].

Jessica Knoll

MLT: I imagine that was a job requirement at Cosmo

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JK: What you look like and what you wear matter a lot in the magazine industry. For some people, it might seem obsessive. For me, it seemed everyday and par for the course.

MLT: Let’s talk about Shipley. Why did you commute from Chester Springs to Bryn Mawr?

Knoll: I went to Villa Maria Academy from kindergarten until eighth grade and then wanted to attend a school that wasn’t religious. Shipley felt like the best fit. It was hard to leave that “lifer” group at Villa Maria, but I didn’t find it difficult to make friends at Shipley. After a period of adjustment, things worked out fine.

MLT: Why did you make the big secret in Ani’s past a high school shooting?

JK: I’m fascinated by crimes that hit the headlines and stick around for years. One was the Columbine shooting. I read Dave Cullen’s book, Columbine, to fill in the gaps about what could drive someone to do that. What I learned is that the media had the whole narrative wrong. That’s what happens to Ani.

MLT: Recently, there was a highly publicized suicide at Shipley. Any thoughts on that?

JK: It was in the news on the day I had a book event, and people asked me about it. Adolescence can be such a difficult time. Things that don’t seem like a big deal to adults can seem insurmountable to teens. It’s been a long time since I’ve been subjected to Main Line pressures, and I see them with a different perspective now that I’m older. But what happened to that young man is terribly, terribly sad.

MLT: What’s next—a second book?

JK: Yes. It’s in the very early stages. But I’ve found that I love writing fiction, and I’m going to keep at it.

Our Best of the Main Line Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!