As Constant Reader is undoubtedly aware, I am a big fan of the Olympics. Few sporting events quite capture the drama and the excitement of the Olympic Games; I’ve been watching them since the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble. I am literally counting the days until the opening ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro this August. I have nothing but the utmost admiration for Olympic athletes; the dedication, the desire, and the drive that is required to excel at any of these sports is exceptional. Gymnastics is very emblematic of this; my earliest Olympic memories are of Olga Korbut in Munich and then Nadia Comaneci in Montreal. The rise of the United States as a world power in the sport, beginning with Mary Lou Retton’s All Around gold in Los Angeles in 1984 (along with the US men claiming their only team gold at that same Olympics) has been thrilling to watch; and the gymnastics competition is always one of my favorite parts of the games. Gymnastics has always provided drama: Nadia’s perfect scores, Kerri Strug vaulting on an injured leg; the vault horse being set up to the wrong height in Sydney; Paul Hamm’s remarkable comeback to win the All Around gold in Athens—the list goes on and on. I’ve always wanted to write about Olympic athletes (Constant Reader will probably remember that one about figure skating has been bouncing around in my head for the last few years; I also kind of did in Jackson Square Jazz way back in 2004 as well); so you can imagine my excitement when I found out one of my writing heroes, Megan Abbott, was writing one, You Will Know Me, and yes, it was about gymnastics.
The vinyl banners rippled from the air vent behind them, the restaurant roiling with parents, the bobbing of gymnast heads, music gushing from the weighty speakers keeled on the window ledges.
Slung around Devon’s neck were three medals, two silver and one gold, her first regional-champion title on the vault.
“I’m so proud of you, sweetie,” Katie whispered in her daughter’s ear. “You can do anything.”
And so we enter the world of Devon Knox, Olympic hopeful and prodigy, a young girl with big dreams but at the same time poised on the brink of adulthood, the possibility of her body betraying her by changing at the wrong time, or in a way that would lessen her ability to perform prodigious feats of acrobatic prowess.
One of the most fun things about reading Megan Abbott is seeing how she transitions from themes and styles in her books. The writing is always exemplary; the way she can breathe life into characters and create scenes and setting with such a sparing use of words is genius: just look at the first italicized sentence above. Even the simple choice of the word slung in the second sentence creates tension and mood; remove that word from the sentence and it creates a completely different tone; one that isn’t quite so strong and evocative.
One simple, five letter word.
Abbott’s work is always like that, a pleasure to read because not only does she create characters the reader cares about, wants to know more about, wants to root for, she also tells stories of almost unbearable suspense and tension. Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong and Patricia Highsmith were all masters of this; Abbott is a worthy successor to those women while forging her own identity.
Comparisons to other masters are also inevitable and deserving; her sparity of language is reminiscent of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson; her hard-boiled edge has echoes of Hammett, Chandles, both McDonalds (Ross and John D.). Her first books (The Song Is You, Queenpin, Bury Me Deep, Die a Little) were amazing period noirs, told from the point of view of women getting themselves into dangerous situations and the things they did to get out of them. She turned the trope of the femme fatale inside out and on its head; reinventing the genre and making it her own. The End of Everything, her next book, was set in an amorphous 70’s/80’s era in the suburbs, and was also her first foray into the dangerously dark world of teenaged girls on the cusp of discovering and owning their own sexuality. Her next two, Dare Me and The Fever, further explored the power dynamics of high school and the relationships between girls. Always she has been interested in those dynamics; of women and their relationships, how they relate to one another. (Queenpin is absolute genius at this; it also won the Edgar Award, deservedly.)
While You Will Know Me is ostensibly about Devon Knox on its surface, it is also about the power dynamic within a family with a child who is a prodigy of some sort. Also different is rather than focusing on Devon, we see the story from her mother’s point of view; exploring what it’s like to be the mother of a child with an amazing gift, the drive to not only protect your child but to help that child achieve her dreams, make it possible for her to rise as high as she can in her chosen world. But this isn’t Mildred Pierce, although it is a story about a mother’s love and sacrifice for her daughter.
But that isn’t all this book is about, either.
Once again, Abbott tackles group dynamics, and power. The mothers of the gymnastics club to which Devon belongs, where she trains, is almost like the cheerleading squad from Dare Me, only grown up and with children of their own they are pushing forward. There are, as with every such group, alphas and betas, queen bees and drones. There are resentments and snark; jealousies and bitcheries, gossip and micro-aggressions. Kate herself isn’t so much a part of this group as she is almost a hanger-on; it is her husband who runs things for the Booster Group of parents, finds the needed money for the gym, organizes events and fundraisers and raffles and car washes. On the surface they all support Devon’s drive for perfection and stardom and glory—but only because they see her rise bringing their daughters and their gym along in her wake. Her failures, thus, are all of theirs. Kate often feels slightly outside the group, listening and observing and always, always watching out for her own child.
The dynamic within the Knox family itself is fascinating to observe, to think about, to digest. How does a family adapt to having a prodigy, to doing everything they possibly can—including a second mortgage on the house—to help that child achieve her dreams, while balancing parenting a second child in the home as well?
For me, one of the marks of a great writer and a great book is if it inspires me. Megan's work always inspires me, to be a better writer, to try harder, work harder, and push myself further. A classic example of this is the character of Drew, the younger Knox child; an incredibly smart young boy who, under normal circumstances, be the star child of the family. Instead, he is an almost afterthought, good-naturedly doing his homework and playing on his laptop while at Devon's constant practices, waiting for her to finish so they can all go home. He doesn't resent his sister (not yet), and is angelic, goes along with everything, is not a problem at all...which had me constantly thinking about what it must like to be the sibling of the prodigy; what must it have been like to be Michelle Kwan's older sister Karen? Chris Evert's sister? Patrick McEnroe? And yes, I started spinning off stories in my mind when I would reluctantly have to put this book aside when I was reading it.
There's a crime in the story, of course; the strange hit-and-run death of a young man dating one of the coaches at the gym, a cute sweet young man on the surface whose death triggers all kind of conflicting emotions and unleashes secrets about everyone at the gym, not the least of all Devon...and begs the questions how well do you know your child? How far will you go to protect your child when you've already sacrificed so much for her??
I've always considered Megan Abbott one of our best writers, and this book is destined to be a classic in every way. The reviews have been outstanding, and deservedly so. This is a great writer at the absolute top of her game--and she's going to keep getting better.