Book Review: Bright Young Women
Victim-centric POV turns true crime genre on its head
Whether or not we'd like to admit it, Americans tend to romanticize serial killers. Our fascination ends up turning them into celebrities while their victims' stories, and those of their loved ones, are forgotten – everyone knows the names and stories of Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacey, and Joseph DeAngelo. There are scads of Netflix documentaries, best selling books, and popular podcasts that tell their stories again and again and allow them to live on throughout history.
One such brutal serial rapist and murderer I failed to mention above is the subject of the new true-ish crime novel Bright Young Women written by the bestselling author of Luckiest Girl Alive, Jessica Knoll. And I didn't mention this real life serial killer's name specifically because Knoll doesn't either. She takes the power of the story out of the hands of the perpetrator and gives the story back to the victims and their family and friends. Bright Young Women is truly about healing from the trauma of childhood while simultaneously dealing with acute trauma in early adulthood.
The story is told over multiple timelines from three perspectives: (1) Martina, a female friend and lover of a victim (Ruth) of the "the defendant" (which is how the serial killer is named in the book) from the beginning of his cross-country killing spree; (2) Pamela, a sorority sister, best friend, and eye-witness to one of the defendant's victims in Florida (both of these timelines take place in the 1970s); and (3) the present day Pamela who is still dealing with the emotional toll of the situation (as well as legal issues that continue to torment).
The story unfolds slowly and could have used some editorial work in parts (the 1970s Pamela seems to inexplicably know her future, like who she will marry, where that info could have been better presented from her future self's perspective), but overall, the book is an unforgettable story of the psychology of women who have been victimized (by both the defendant as well as their own families). The social climate of the 1970s is on full display: gaslighting, slut-shaming, homophobia, etc. The title of the book itself is a play on the leniency that the defendant experienced while on trial, being referred to by a judge as a "bright young man."
If you're a woman, this book will make you blind with rage – and if you're not a woman, it should as well. The author creates complex, empathetic characters and tells an intriguing unfolding of the story, bestowing just enough justice by the end to satisfy.
S&S/Marysue Rucci Books // 384 pages // Fictionalized True Crime