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The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe
Literary fiction

The Knockout Queen

by Rufi Thorpe

Excellent choice

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Quick take

Remember how fun high school was? Yeah, we don’t either. For everyone who wasn’t prom queen or homecoming king.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_LGBTQ

    LGBTQ+ themes

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Sad

    Sad

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Teen

    Teens

  • Illustrated icon, Icons_Underdog

    Underdog

Synopsis

Bunny Lampert is the princess of North Shore?—beautiful, tall, blond, with a rich real-estate-developer father and a swimming pool in her backyard. Michael??—with a ponytail down his back and a septum piercing?—lives with his aunt in the cramped stucco cottage next door. When Bunny catches Michael smoking in her yard, he discovers that her life is not as perfect as it seems.

At six foot three, Bunny towers over their classmates. Even as she dreams of standing out and competing in the Olympics, she is desperate to fit in, to seem normal, and to get a boyfriend, all while hiding her father's escalating alcoholism. Michael has secrets of his own. At home and at school Michael pretends to be straight, but at night he tries to understand himself by meeting men online for anonymous encounters that both thrill and scare him.

When Michael falls in love for the first time, a vicious strain of gossip circulates and a terrible, brutal act becomes the defining feature of both his and Bunny's futures??—and of their friendship. With storytelling as intoxicating as it is intelligent, Rufi Thorpe has created a tragic and unflinching portrait of identity, a fascinating examination of our struggles to exist in our bodies, and an excruciatingly beautiful story of two humans aching for connection.

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Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of The Knockout Queen.
The Knockout Queen

1

When I was eleven years old, I moved in with my aunt after my mother was sent to prison.

That was 2004, which was incidentally the same year the pictures of Abu Ghraib were published, the same year we reached the conclusion there were no weapons of mass destruction after all. What a whoopsie. Mistakes were made, clearly, but the blame for these mistakes was impossible to allocate as no one person could be deemed responsible. What was responsibility even? Guilt was a transcendental riddle that baffled our sweet Pollyannaish president. How had it happened? Certainly he had not wanted it to happen. In a way, President Bush was a victim in all this too.

Perplexingly, the jury had no difficulty in assigning guilt to my own mother as she sat silently, looking down, tears running and running down her face at what seemed to me at the time an impossible rate. Slow down, Mom, you’ll get dehydrated! If you have never been in a criminal courtroom, it is disgusting. You have seen them so often on TV that seeing an actual one is grotesque: the real live lawyers, all sweaty, their dark mouths venting coffee breath directly into your face, the judge who has a cold and keeps blowing his nose, the defendants who are crying or visibly shaking, whose moms are watching or whose kids are trying to sit still in the back. It’s a lot to take in when you’re eleven and even just a few months prior you were making an argument that not receiving a particular video game for your birthday would be “unfair.”

The town to which my little sister and I were relocated after a brief stint in foster care was a suburban utopia a la Norman Rockwell, updated with a fancy coffee shop and yoga studio. We moved in just before the Fourth of July, and I remember being shooed into a town fair, where there were bounce houses and hot dogs being sold to benefit the Kiwanis club. What the fuck was the Kiwanis club? I was given a wristband and ten dollars and told to go play. A woman painted a soccer ball on my face. (All the boys got soccer balls, and all the girls got butterflies; those were the options.)

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Why I love it

This is my favorite book of the year so far. One of the dangers of reading so many new books each month is that I overuse these words a lot. But I can’t help it. In January I was telling everyone about The Sun Down Motel. Then April came along and I couldn’t stop talking about Valentine. So consider this my endorsement, with an asterisk: The Knockout Queen is my favorite book of 2020 (so far!).

Bunny Lampert is tall, blonde, and has a heart of gold. She’s a talented volleyball player and her father is rich. All this should add up to popularity, right? Wrong. For some reason, she and her best friend Michael—the boy next door who narrates the story—exist on the fringes of high school society. But no matter. As Bunny grapples with her father’s worsening (and occasionally terrifying) alcoholism and Michael begins dating older men he meets online, they take solace in each other. That is, until a sudden act of violence rips their lives, and their friendship, apart.

This is one of those books that kind of defies explanation, which is why I want to take a stab at describing what it is not. It is not a “light” read. It will not make you pine for your teenage years. The world that Bunny and Michael live in is not a particularly fair or beautiful one. What The Knockout Queen is: a moving story about two remarkably resilient humans, from a writer at the height of her powers. I hope you love it too.

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Member ratings (9,357)

  • Charla K.

    Sandusky, OH

    A little slow but intriguing to say the least. I have 2 gay cousins and it is always nice to read things about their point of view and how others perceive them. No one truly understands things unlessoutreadinothersshoes

  • Nicole M.

    Laramie, WY

    I’m going to be honest... this book wasn’t my first choice. While starting it, I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it. But holy cow! I read the entire second half of the book in one day! Couldn’t put it down!

  • Monica C.

    Wichita , KS

    Wow! I didn’t think I’d like the book as much as I actually did! Unexpected, dark story line. The relationship between Michael & Bunny is so real. It’s sad, but joyful at the same time. Well crafted!

  • Leslie B.

    Southbury, CT

    One of the best books about teens and their issues I have ever read—and I’ve read a lot!! This is one I will be recommending as a fantastic novel as well as a handbook for teen parents! A must read!

  • Kate D.

    New York, NY

    This book kept surprising me. As the story unfolded, I often wasn’t sure where we were heading, but in the best way. Bunny and Michael’s friendship reminded me of one I never had, so real I was there.

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