I haven’t picked up a Megan Abbott book since her fine books set back in the 30’s and 40’s – she’s since turned her gaze toward contemporary teen culture and I haven’t been as captivated. This one, however, I picked up just to take a look – it has incredible advance buzz – and was instantly grabbed by the theme: gymnastics. With the Olympics around the corner, what could be more perfect? Of course, being a Megan Abbott novel, this isn’t a happy little story of triumph over tragedy but a study of a family in deep crisis.
I was first reminded as I read (and I inhaled this in a few hours) what a really terrific writer Abbott is from the very simplest of standpoints: prose and character. She’s also truly a noir writer in every sense. I am often irritated by contemporary tough guy noir as to me it seems slightly fake and forced, but Abbott’s version of noir is more of the turning-over-rocks-to-see-what’s-underneath variety, and that I can totally get behind. In this approach she’s following the footsteps of some wonderful writers, but I’d most closely align her with the Barbara Vine incarnation of the late, great Ruth Rendell. I know Abbott herself looks back to American women writers like Dorothy B. Hughes, but I really see a Rendell-ish turn here as in, halfway through the book, it’s obvious nothing else that happens is going to be good.
While Abbott doesn’t have the classic noir point of view that absolutely everything is corrupt, she’s pretty close. She turns her eye to the all-American Knox family: mother Katie, father Eric, and children Devon and Drew. Devon is a flat out gymnastics star, and her parents are completely caught up in her success. In fact, their relationship seems to center around Devon’s achievement to the detriment of Drew, who is dragged behind Devon from meet to meet and gym to gym.
As the book opens they are at a celebration of the gymnastics team’s success, but things for the team become darker when, shortly before an important meet, it’s discovered that the boyfriend of one of the young coaches, a young man everyone had liked, has been killed in a hit and run accident. It’s unclear at first how this affects Devon and her family, but Abbott then proceeds to explicate the incredible sacrifices of time and money Devon’s parents have made in attempting to achieve the unspoken dream: the Olympics. The father is a charter member of the booster club who has raised all kinds of money to make Coach T’s gym the best it can be,
Then there’s the formative accident that’s shaped Devon’s life: when she was 3, two of her toes were cut off by the lawnmower, forcing her into gymnastics to help her with balance. Abbott’s description of the gymnastics culture seems spot on to me, and she seems to have two central concerns in this novel. One is, what is the price of a driving ambition like Devon’s? She’s able to shut everything else out completely when she performs, but she’s dragged her family along for the ride.
The other is even more central: how well do you really know anybody? This story is truly Katie’s as she starts to wonder how well she knows her husband, and how well does she actually know Devon? Or even little Drew? As Devon hits adolescence, like many mothers before her, Katie’s assumed she’ll always know everything about her child. Then the gate of adolescence comes down and changes everything.
There’s also a crime, as it’s quickly obvious the young man wasn’t killed in a random hit and run. The driver seems to have been someone he knew. While Abbott is a beautiful creator of character and setting and a lovely prose stylist, she’s also a true mystery writer. The crime at the heart of the novel is truly mysterious and has tentacles that reach through every character’s life. The ending has a great twist to it. Abbott is also finely tuned to the mores of the middle class and the little rifts and differences that make up middle class culture. In 50 years an anthropologist could do far worse than to turn to a Megan Abbott novel to find out how people really lived.