I recently read Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll, a glitzy tragicomedy that follows one woman’s attempt to escape her terrible past by making her present self unrecognizable. Part of this transformation involves becoming hyper aware, almost to the point of obsession, with etiquette. Ani (Née TifAni) knows that if she is going to pass as a blue blood in her new circle of old money, there are certain habits and behaviours that must appear to come natural to her. Throughout the novel, we see her execute peak performances in moments of high tension. Encountering the spouse of a man who knew Ani at her most traumatic? She still remembers not to say “Nice to meet you.” At a gala full of millionaires? She still remembers to flip the empty oyster shell upside down onto the ice. At a tense dinner with her future in-laws? You pass the salt and the pepper together, always. These customs help Ani exact control over a life that continues to unravel as she keeps running from two major traumas that only the strongest–or the luckiest–girls could survive.
There was a capital T truth that rang through Knoll’s emphases on etiquette, and I recognized myself in them, having grown up in a rural region from a working class family. My moments analogous to Ani’s include learning to clink the bell of a glass during a toast, not the rim (though some say we shouldn’t clink at all!), to put my napkin on the seat of my chair if I take a trip to the restroom, and what to do with my knife and fork when I’m finished eating. I remember exactly where I was and who taught me each of these rules and countless others, and the fleeting feeling of shame that ran through my body because I hadn’t already known.
In Luckiest Girl Alive, Ani knows that for every etiquette rule she’s learned the hard way, there’re more that remain obscure to her and are used by others to prove that she doesn’t belong. At the end of the novel, having reached the point where she can’t physically withstand any more inauthenticity, Ani performs the ultimate high-society faux pas. To take back the control that a group of boys wrested from her in her youth, she must let go of everything she’s been white-knuckling for so long.