Written by Megan Abbott, narrated by Lauren Fortgang – Known for her hardboiled and noir stories, Megan Abbott’s latest novel – reviewed here as an audiobook – captures a darker side of sporting competition to co-incide with the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics. America’s queen of noir has written a psychological thriller about the depth of the sacrifices a family will make to produce an elite gymnast.
You Will Know Me is told almost entirely from the point of view of gymnast Devon Knox’s mother, Katie. Devon is 13 and seems to be on a straight path to athletic accomplishment. Katie and her husband Eric have taken a second mortgage to support her training, the competition fees, and the $200 leotards. The parents of girls at the club pitch in to make expensive upgrades to the practice gym, and Coach Teddy Belfour brings in his niece Hailey to help with the younger gymnasts.
Devon’s training takes over the lives of her entire family. Her studious younger brother Drew seems willing to put his childhood on permanent hold so that evenings and weekends can be spent at Devon’s practice sessions, attending her competitions, and participating in fundraisers. As Katie says, “When you have an extraordinary child, you’ll do anything for her.”
Abbott well describes how all-consuming serious participation in any sport (or music, or dance) can become. She convincingly portrays the feel of the gym, its gestalt, its sounds and smells, the chalk-dust thickness to the air. When Devon practices, you are there with her, you feel the thumping on the mats and apparatus, and the adrenaline rush Katie experiences. You understand the sacrifices.
For the Knox family, the extent of those sacrifices becomes clear only after Hailey’s boyfriend Ryan Beck arrives on the scene – a handsome young man in a sea of pubescent girls and not-that-old moms. Ryan stirs this stewpot of emotions: girls trained to hold in their feelings, like diminutive adults; adults who flirt and snipe like adolescents. His presence, then his absence, tests them all when he’s killed in an unexplained hit-and-run accident.
Abbott also captures the obsessive concern over Devon’s body – its maturing (or lack thereof), injuries past and present, obsessive exercising, the attention to every meal. “Her body was their heart,” she writes.
What Katie doesn’t recognise is how much the family’s fixation is inhibiting their capacity to make moral choices. Abbott has divided the novel into parts, each introduced with a quote from Letters to a Young Gymnast, written by real-life former Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci. This is the epigram for section IV: “But I sometimes wonder, to this day, if courage is just another word for desperation.”
As the situation spins out of control, Katie lets go of her manners, telling other parents flat-out that their girls don’t have the talent. If Abbott weren’t so skillful in showing that Katie’s own psychological torment is causing her to behave this way, her outbursts would make her a bit of a monster.
The audiobook narrator Lauren Fortang skilfully helps build our sympathy for Katie too. She has recorded some 150 audiobooks and does an excellent job here, especially with the large number of teen girls. I especially admired her wispy Lacey Weaver, Devon’s teammate, whose voice is so light it seems about to float away, taking her with it. She gives brother Drew a lisp that never becomes cartoonish, but immediately distinguishes him from the girls.
The plot of the novel is not complicated, you see where it’s going, and you may feel Abbott milks it too long in a few places. Yet the real action is taking place in Katie’s head, and in the heads of the other family members as they reveal themselves to her. Abbott does a good job putting and keeping you close in. Drew, though seemingly the odd-man-out in this family, is not just essential to the plot but to the heart of the story.
Early in the book, Katie contemplates the striving girls and asks a prescient question, “What have we done to them?” Gymnastics, it seems, ages girls and keeps them young forever at the same time.
Megan Abbott’s Dare Me also dives in the world of adolescent girls, but from an entirely different angle.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars