The Favourite Sister review: Deceptive realities

The Favourite Sister review: Deceptive realities

A reality show forms the crux of Jessica Knoll’s The Favourite Sister. Among the group of women featured in the show are Brett and Kelly Courtney, sisters with a rivalry running deep through them. There is Jen, and Lauren, and the very successful Stephanie. When the novel opens, a death (or murder) has taken place and Kelly is being interviewed. And then the story moves back in time to when the women were part of the reality show called Gold Diggers. Each of those women was successful and self-made, and each of them was below 35, a magical cut-off number.

The Favourite Sister starts off with a bewildering cast of characters and extraordinarily judgemental characters, at that. The relationship they have with each other is toxic, and the book meanders between Kelly and Brett and Stephanie in a confusing plotline. Brett shares her business with Kelly, and their objective (or so she says) is to help women in Morocco. Their lives on the television screen appear to be almost completely fabricated, leading to petty jealousies and unhealthy competition, and a need to become what they are not. At times, it is difficult for them to separate their real identities from their created personas. Lies and deception and even backstabbing seem to be the norm in Gold Diggers.

Brett has created an image of herself as being a successful entrepreneur with a flair for philanthropy. She has built her career based on a story about her lesbianism and her family’s reactions to it. During the filming season of Gold Diggers, Brett is engaged to Arch. She is an advocate for body positivity — and her ideas do not go down well with some of the other contestants who insist she is fat. Kelly is Brett’s sister and the responsible one, or so she believes. The business, SPOKE, runs on her ideas and her young daughter Layla handles their store. Kelly tries to keep her cool during Gold Diggers in spite of her sister’s irritating escapades. And, as she reveals on page 139, she imagines herself to be SPOKE’s “…bookkeeper, ambassador, hiring manager, human resources department, janitor, publicist, and receptionist.”
Stephanie is an extremely successful writer. She can barely tolerate her insipid marriage to Vince. Jen is obsessed with being thin and eating ‘healthy’ food that everybody else usually finds inedible. Lauren is flighty and self-absorbed and sometimes very lucid and even cutting in her observations.

All of these women have problems, and all of them have secrets. Their fake personas for Gold Diggers eventually begin taking control of their lives, leaving them little room for reflection. But the characters of The Favourite Sister, even with chapters devoted to their points of view, appear to speak with the same voice. They are vicious to the point of being unnatural. They judge those who do not conform to what they believe to be right. And it is sometimes hard to discern what exactly it is they believe in — other than chaos.

The book has an interesting theme, given that Gold Diggers tries to pit women against each other because of the belief that conflicts and tension create more viewership. But with all that goes on in The Favourite Sister and with the shifting narratives, the story is difficult to follow. There are twists in there that are unexpected, but those twists are placed randomly and it takes patience getting to them in the first place.

The Favourite Sister does reveal some of the negativity of the world — especially when it comes to successful women needing to fit certain stereotypical images. In the case of Gold Diggers, that would be that, no matter how much they’ve achieved, these women cannot get along.

However, the toxicity of it all is overwhelming. Most of the time, the women of the book speak words laced with venom. Given the strange way in which they sound similar, it is difficult telling them apart and new characters are added at every turn, all of them as peculiar as the last. Feminist issues are raised in fiery tirades that could have been better integrated into the story.

Overall, The Favourite Sister could have been shorter, and the characters could have been more individualised. Except for their backstories and their insistence that they are different from each other, they seem to speak in the same voice, tone and tenor. The concept of a reality TV show is novel, but the execution of the said show is as perplexing as its cast. The underlying vitriol makes this novel hard to read at times, and none of the characters are likeable. Which was probably intended, given the way they behave.

There are some really original touches towards the end, however.

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