By Megan Abbott, narrated by Lauren Fortgang – Publication of this new psychological thriller about a family’s sacrifices in producing an elite gymnast was well-timed to coincide with the Olympics and the public’s quadrennial fixation on little girls’ determination to fly. Told almost entirely from the point of view of American gymnast Devon Knox’s mother Katie, this family’s ties only bind tighter when external events threaten.
Thirteen-year-old Devon is on what seems to be a straight path to athletic accomplishment. Katie and her husband Eric have taken a second mortgage to support her training, the competition fees, the $200 leotards. Coach Teddy Belfour is confident, the booster club of BelStar parents pitches in to make expensive upgrades to the practice gym, Coach T brings on his niece Hailey to help with the younger girls. And Devon’s 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, driving her to competitions, and participating in booster club events.
In short, Devon’s gymnastics is their life. As Katie says, “When you have an extraordinary child, you’ll do anything for her.” While nothing in the backstory of any of the current crop of elite gymnasts suggests the pathology that overtakes the Knox family, single-minded commitment, extreme sacrifice, and unshakable determination are par for the course.
Abbott, winner of multiple awards in the mystery/thriller domain, convincingly portrays the emotional temperature of the gym, its sounds and smells, the chalk-dust thickness to the air. When Devon practices, you are with her, you feel the adrenaline rush Katie does, watching. You understand the sacrifices, as well as how the family’s fixation is inhibiting the capacity to make moral choices.
For the Knox family, the extent of those sacrifices and choices becomes clear only after Hailey’s handsome boyfriend Ryan Beck comes on the scene. Ryan stirs a stewpot of emotions among girls trained to hold in their feelings, like diminutive adults, and moms 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 has divided the novel into parts, each introduced with a quote from Nadia Comaneci’s Letters to a Young Gymnast. This is the epigram for section IV: “But I sometimes wonder, to this day, if courage is just another word for desperation.”
Narrator Lauren Fortgang 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 poor Lacey with it. She gives brother Drew a lisp that never becomes cartoonish, but immediately distinguishes him from the girls.
A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.