54 pages 1 hour read

Jessica Knoll

Bright Young Women

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2023

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Summary and Study Guide


Bright Young Women is a crime novel written by Jessica Knoll and published in 2023. The plot is based on the crimes committed by American serial killer Ted Bundy, although Bundy is never named in the novel. Knoll uses the novel to critique and subvert the true crime genre by centering the stories of women, including both victims and survivors. The novel explores themes of misogyny, toxic family dynamics, and salacious interest in crime and criminals.

This guide refers to the Marysue Rucci Books edition.

Content Warning: The novel and guide refer to violent death, sexual assault, and sexual abuse.

Plot Summary

The novel features three distinct plotlines, each occurring at a different point in time: 1974, 1978-1979, and 2021. In winter 1974, a young woman named Ruth meets a woman named Tina at a complex grief support group. Ruth is an unhappy 25-year-old woman living in a suburb near Seattle, while Tina is the beautiful and glamorous young widow of a very wealthy man. Ruth and Tina form a close friendship and eventually a romantic relationship, in which Tina encourages Ruth to become more independent and distance herself from her toxic family.

Ruth and Tina move in together, but in July 1974, Ruth vanishes from a crowded beach. Tina becomes convinced that Ruth was abducted, especially because several young women recently disappeared and a serial killer may be operating in the area. However, Ruth’s family members (who oppose Ruth’s sexual orientation and her relationship with Tina) don’t think Ruth was harmed and don’t press for investigation. Tina does investigate, eventually becoming convinced that Ruth’s disappearance is linked to a series of other murders in Colorado and Utah.

In January 1978, Pamela Schumacher is an ambitious prelaw student at Florida State University and is the president of her sorority house. One night, Pamela wakes to the sound of an intruder and briefly glimpses a man fleeing from the house. The man has brutally attacked four young women living in the house, and two of them (including Pamela’s closest friend, Denise) die. In the aftermath of the attack, police begin to fixate on a man named Roger (Denise’s ex-boyfriend) as the main suspect, though Pamela insists that the man she saw wasn’t Roger.

Tina learns about the attack in Florida and meets up with Pamela. She explains to Pamela about a man referred to only as The Defendant. He’s connected to multiple murders in Utah and Colorado but escaped from a Colorado jail in December 1977 and has been at large ever since. Tina thinks he’s likely responsible for the attacks in Florida, and she’s also convinced that he killed Ruth. When she shows Pamela an image of The Defendant, Pamela immediately confirms that he’s the man she saw at the sorority house. With the assistance of a journalist named Carl, Pamela and Tina try to connect The Defendant to the crimes in Florida. They go to Colorado and learn that The Defendant may have already been planning attacks at Florida State University before he escaped. However, Florida police are slow to act on this information, and The Defendant kills a 12-year-old girl in another Florida town. A few days after this final murder, he’s finally arrested and connected to the murders at Florida State University.

Pamela later plays a key role in The Defendant’s trial, providing eyewitness testimony. Carl disappoints Pamela and Tina: Focusing on his own career and financial gain, he works to gain The Defendant’s trust in order to write about him. The Defendant is convicted of many murders in multiple states and is executed in Florida in 1989. Pamela becomes a successful lawyer, marries, and has a daughter; she and Tina remain close. For years, the two continue trying to find out information about Ruth; in 2021, Pamela receives information from a doctor treating Carl, who has dementia. Carl has revealed that he met with The Defendant and recorded additional information. The doctor, who knows that Pamela was a survivor of the sorority attack, wants Pamela to know.

After learning about Carl’s claims, Pamela goes to Florida and meets with him. She decides to track down the additional tape recordings he’s referring to and learns that the tapes were used in the investigation into Ruth’s disappearance. The case was eventually closed without a conviction, so the recordings became available to Ruth’s family; her sister-in-law and former lover, Rebecca, obtained the tapes and hid them. Because Tina was Ruth’s domestic partner, she and Pamela are able to take the tapes back from Rebecca. They listen to the tapes, in which The Defendant confesses to abducting and murdering Ruth and describes where he buried her. Pamela and Tina plant ferns (which grow different colors depending on the soil content) to attempt to determine the precise location of Ruth’s body so that they can finally lay her to rest.

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By Jessica Knoll