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Novel Explores The Fierce And Frenzied World Of Competitive Gymnastics


This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a timely suspense novel to recommend about the serious world of female gymnastics. Here's her review of "You Will Know Me" by Megan Abbott.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: As always, gymnastics is one of the most watched events at this year's Summer Olympics. There's something about the tension between those ripped-yet-childlike bodies of so many of the young female gymnasts and the impossibly daring feats they perform on the floor and balance beam that makes the sport transfixing. And for every gymnastics event that takes place in the spotlight, another parallel event is taking place in the stands. There, the families of the young athletes sit, their faces strained with anxiety, and of course pride.

Imagine the years of sacrifice that have gone into making that brief Olympic moment possible - the second mortgages to finance private coaching, the drives to daily workouts, the weekends forfeited to an endless round of out-of-town competitions. But that's no matter. For parents to witness their child compete at the Olympics would be worth almost anything, wouldn't it? Perhaps, as Megan Abbott suggests in her terrific new psychological suspense novel, even murder would be a small price to pay for lasting Olympic greatness.

Abbott's new novel, called "You Will Know Me," is itself worthy of the gold. In it, she takes readers deep into the intense, vacuum-sealed world of young female gymnasts and their parents. It's a masterful thriller that also offers an eerily precise portrait of the way teenage and parental cliques operate. The novel's central characters, Katie and Eric Knox, have overextended themselves financially and emotionally to support their 15-year-old daughter, Devon.

Ever since Devon was 3, gymnastics has been the mighty spine of everything for them. Now, Devon is on the brink of qualifying for the Olympics under the expert tutelage of Coach Teddy, the gymnast whisperer, who presides over BelStars Gym, which has become the Knox's universe. The gym's booster parties constitute the extent of their social life. The other girls' parents are their only friends - or sort of, because Devon after all is the sun, and the other girls, merely her satellites.

One fateful night, however, everything threatens to collapse. A young man named Ryan who works at the gym is found dead, a victim of an apparent hit and run. Perhaps it wasn't smart of him to walk alone on a dark country road. Perhaps it also wasn't smart of him to be so cheerfully oblivious to the fierce, competitive currents swirling around that gym. It's Abbott's psychological smarts that make "You Will Know Me" such a standout.

Most of this thriller is narrated from the point of view of Devon's harried mom, Katie. At first, Katie seems like the kind of mom you'd want to sit next to at a gymnastics meet, sharing power bars and gossip. But as Devon's Olympic hopes are threatened, we readers start to realize that a tiger mom lurks beneath Katie's bright smile. Similarly, Abbott manipulates our view of Devon, whom the other girls call Ice Eyes because she's so opaque and unflappable. Throughout most of the novel, Abbott emphasizes Devon's star status and power as a gymnast, which is why this scene towards the end, where Katie enters Devon's high school classroom, is so startling.

(Reading) It had been a while, more than a while, since Katie had seen Devon among so many other girls her age - non-gym girls. None of them looked anything like Devon. When had they all developed these bodies, these absurdly luxuriant breasts stretched beneath straining T-shirts? These were women, or close enough. And a few feet apart from them, in her quiet corner, her pencil moving, sat her tiny, herculean daughter, stallion thighs stretched against the denim of her jeans, her face wan and small.

Abbott commands our attention with a plot that somersaults and back flips whenever a safe landing seems in sight. But what's even more ingenious is how artfully her novel draws us readers into that closed world of the BelStars Gym. Chapter by chapter, we come to understand and share Katie and Eric's parental obsession with Devon's athletic career. "You Will Know Me" is a terrific accompaniment to this summer's Olympic frenzy. It's an all-around winner.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "You Will Know Me" by Megan Abbott. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Jacqueline Woodson, author of the new novel "Another Brooklyn," based in part on her memories of being a teenager in Brooklyn in the 1970s after having moved there from the Jim Crow South. Her memoir, "Brown Girl Dreaming," won a National Book Award. She's now the Young People's Poet Laureate. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden and Roberta Shorrock directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.