Thursday, July 5, 2018

Talking Sounds: "You Will Know Me" by Megan Abbott

Talking Sounds: You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott, 2016, download from Wisconsin Digital Library.

A second athlete novel by Abbott. Since Abbott wrote this you know the book is going to be good. You also know there will be a fine focus on the characters and how they think and what they perceive. I had plenty of fascinating insights as I listened to the novel. But, since I never wrote the thoughts down I've forgotten most every one of those incredible and interesting observations. So, here is what I do recall.

You Will Know Me is a neat change from Aboott's previous three books. All four of those last novels discuss the lives of teen girls but You is the only story narrated by an adult rather than a teenager.  In those other novels Abbott gave a neat look into the lives of those girls and young women. She regularly covered the teen to adult transition with girls who discover sex, changing bodies, seeing their parents as fallible humans, recognizing how men look and speak differently to them.

Anyhoo. Katie is in her mid-30s and married to Eric who proposed after a surprise pregnancy when they were were 20. Their 15-year-old (roughly) daughter is Devon. Devon took up gymnastics ten years ago after a freak lawn mower accident mangled her foot. Gymnastics was intended to help Devon improve her balance and strength after losing a toe, but Devon immediately loved the sport and was a natural. Since then Katie and Eric have put in a padded basement gym, paid for gym and coaching fees, bought Devon equipment, spent long weekends driving to long tournaments, sought out a more skilled coach, formed a booster club, and mostly ignored their 10-year-old son.

Devon herself is driven and dedicated. She's focused on gymnastics and school but most of her effort is placed on the sport.  Her practices last three hours and the gym's stands always have parents there observing, gossiping, fretting, and planning. Devon's gymnast career has been on a strong climb as her talent and skill keep improving and gaining notice. She was ready to advance into an elite level of competition when she flubbed a routine and missed qualifying.

It's now been a year since that qualification failure and Devon is wound pretty tight. She does not date or have friends outside gymnastics and - as we learn - is a kind of outcast at her school. It's this point where Abbott hits away on the theme of bodies and body image and body functionality. Unlike Abbott's other teen girl books where new curves bring sultriness and male attention the gymnasts are all very petite, very muscular, and wanting to stop the growth of puberty. Big boobs bring weight and bust balance. (Bust was a pun.) Gymnastic events are all about the power-to-weight ratio and that prime intersections of skill, experience and light-weight happens when the athletes are still girls. An athlete has a narrow window to work hard and succeed before she grows to an adult.

Puberty's effects are a touchy subject. Age and change are a barrier to success and fame but how do you wish a kid to not grow up? Devon is good enough that people expect her to compete nationally or internationally. Katie usually dance around this body issue in conversation but knows how Devon will change and is split over her desire for Devon's athletic success and versus growth. Katie and Eric have spent a lot of time and faith on Devon. Hell, their family is built upon Devon's gymnast career.

AT the novel's start Devon is practicing to enter a qualifying meet when the super handsome boyfriend of the gym's popular tumbling coach is hit and killed by a car. Super Handsome was the darling of the athletes and the gym moms. The moms all gave him the eye and flirted as he helped out at the gym, went to meets, and worked in the restaurant of the booster club's main financier.

The hit-and-run death is a shock to everyone involved with the team and gym. Katie gets protective as she recognizes the odd behavior of Eric and Devon after the accident. Tumbling Coach is initially suspected of killing Super Handsome in a jealous rage. Tumbling Coach is cleared and starts throwing accusations at Devon. Katie gets confused, "What the hell is going in? My daughter spent no time with Super Handsome."

Katie's distress spreads from grief over Super Handsome to concern over her daughter, her husband, her daughter's coach, other gym parents, and a slow realization of how their second child gets constant second billing within the family. The reader starts to see conspiracy among all these characters as we recognize the signs and clues that Katie is oblivious to.

Anyway here are some spoilers. Things happen as the cops get involved. Katie and Eric clash. Katie gets jealous of Eric's closeness to Devon. I started to see Devon as a liar and manipulator. I wonder if there is a conspiracy to keep the hit-and-run driver's identity a secret to protect the team and Devon. Were Super Handsome and Devon doing the sexy-sexy? Did Eric murder Super Handsome because of the sexy-sexy? Was Katie doing the sex-sexy with Super Handsome and reluctant to admit it to us?

Spoilers are over. Abbott writes another fine novel. An interesting thing is that there is little or no detail on the sport or it's disciplines. Abbott does not dwell on body mechanics, body position, or scoring details of the athletes and sport. The focus is all on the characters.

As in other Abbott books the narrator is not exactly unreliable but more that she is unknowing or naive. Or she is unwilling to admit to and see the truth. Katie repeatedly says Devon's success is all by Devon. Katie credits Devon's desire, dedication, and discipline. Which is kinda true but Katie and Eric are there every way to support/push Devon along.

1. Did Bill Crider review this? I should check and see what he had to say.
2. In the past I've often stopped reading Abbott's novels about halfway through because she lays the tension on thick and I have to step back from the feelings of dread I get reading. After a couple days I'll go back to the book.
3. The title of the review in the NYT was "Gymnast Girl and Cute Dead Guy". Well, that's a bullshit title but I suppose it does draw the eye.  Cute Dead Guy has a minor role. Cute Dead Guy is nothing. Cute Dead Guy is the damn McGuffin.

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