I think gymnastics is a hard subject to make stories out of. Not that there aren’t a ton of stories within the sport, there are, but it’s difficult to get it right. You can’t have a casual knowledge of the sport to make it come alive in a novel; you have to understand the details, the aches and injuries and how gymnasts go on anyway, the politics (Oh! the politics, throw a bunch of mostly-wealthy parents into a gym where they’re trying to make sure their daughters become the next Big Gymnastics Deal and you can’t even imagine the politics, it’s knee-deep in the parents’ seats, and that’s not even taking into account the interactions between coaches and athletes, who gets whose attention, who never gets any attention…), the drama, the leotard difficulties, the body issues, not to mention all the technical terms and what they mean. On the other hand, if a story is too enmeshed in the gymnastics world, it’s difficult for a reader who hasn’t been immersed in gymnastics to understand or imagine (or maybe even care) what is going on.
I suppose the specificities for any sport are the same. But somehow, gymnastics seems…rarified. Everyone watches football at some point in their life, and basketball. Probably most Americans have had to even play a little bit of basketball, and volleyball, and baseball, even if it was just in seventh grade PE class. Everyone’s had to run around a track or do the pacer. Most sports are experienced by many people, but gymnastics is not really a shared social experience.
It seems less accessible and so more difficult to work into a novel.
But if anyone could write a novel about gymnastics it would be Megan Abbott, who’s also written a novel based on cheerleading—and managed to make this anti-cheerleader love it. She has a way of writing a story wherein she brings a type of community to life and then casts a glaring light on its imperfections, by way of her characters’ stories. That her books are mysteries hardly matters; they are each studies of human darkness.
You Will Know Me, her newest book which I read in three days and then carried around in my bag trying to write about, is set in the gymnastics community. Devon Knox is an up-and-coming gymnast, just on the edge of making it into the national level. Her parents, Katie and Eric, have been as devoted to Devon’s achievements as she has, mortgaging and re-mortgaging their house, sliding into debt, sitting through meets and workouts. The stress is worth the possibility of Devon following the plan devised by her coach, a pathway to the Olympics. But when a boy associated with the gym is killed, the plan is nearly derailed.
When I first read about this book and started eagerly anticipating it, I imagined it would be told through Devon’s perspective, but it isn’t; the story comes through Devon’s parents. In this sense, the story becomes less about the gymnasts and more about what it is like to have an up-and-coming gymnast as your daughter. Gymnastics is an expensive sport, especially at the elite level. Six-hour-long workouts six days a week is just the start; there’s also grips and wrist guards and tape and beam shoes, practice leos and competition leos (the ones the 2016 Olympic gymnasts wore were rumored to cost $1200), travel costs and meet fees and USGF fees. Private tutors if your kid can’t fit school in. The Knoxes solidly middle class, so the gymnastics expenses put a strain on their relationship.
But expenses aren’t the only strain. Marriage is hard enough in regular families; adding the tension and pressure of creating a world-class athlete and readers can quickly see how the marriage comes to be centered not on the couple but on their hopes (and ambitions) for their daughter. Which is less like a marriage and more like a sports contract.
Writing the story through Eric and Katie’s perspective changes this novel entirely, so it wasn’t what I expected, but I think that makes it more accessible. It made me dig around a thing I have fairly complicated feelings for, which always surges during Olympics summers. My parents did a lot of sacrificing so I could be a gymnast, and I still have a deeply-seated guilt that I let them down by quitting when I was 16. They sacrificed so that I could earn a college scholarship, and I didn’t do that, so it feels like their sacrifice was for nothing. But there is also the other coin: I didn’t try to sacrifice much of anything for my own kids to become world-class athletes. On one hand, I feel so strongly that it is not healthy for kids, including teenagers, to be so wrapped up in their sport that they don’t have an identity without it. Consider Nathan, who loves playing basketball but also loves other things like rock climbing and art. He played on some basketball teams when he was younger, but he didn’t dedicate himself to it for his whole growing-up years. Now that he’s in high school he’s finding it problematic to make any headway with his team, not necessarily because of his skills but because he doesn’t want to be all basketball all the time. I feel guilty about this because maybe if *I* pushed harder, if I were like the parents that Olympians speak of—the ones who sacrificed everything for their children—then my kids would…I don’t know. Be Olympians? Are the parents who help create Olympic athletes (or even college-scholarship athletes) better parents than the rest of us? Just more determined? Wealthier?
See—it’s complicated. I just know something true about the sports we do as kids and teenagers: they end. There is always a last meet or game; eventually you have to stop. And I know that the vacuum in my life that I created when I left gymnastics was devastating to me. I couldn’t keep doing the sport, but I didn’t know who I was without it, and figuring that out was pretty rough.
(Parts of my psyche still haven’t learned, as evidenced by how often I wake up from a gymnastics dream and then cry in my bed for a little while; my body still wants to move in those ways and probably a part of me will always long for it.)
And that, friends, is why this review has taken me so long to write: because I am the perfect reader for this book. I know enough about gymnastics to know that she gets the details right, and I love good writing enough to recognize good writing.
But I don’t think you have to be the perfect reader to love this book. Or even really know about gymnastics. I think parents, spouses, people who have ever competed in any sport will like it, as will mystery fans.
It’s definitely one of my top-ten favorites this year.