They’re those people in the stands the TV cameras sometimes briefly alight on: the moms and dads, their faces strained with anxiety and, of course, pride. They’ve sacrificed so much for that Olympic athlete standing in readiness at the starting line, diving platform or — with hands chalked and body taut — before the uneven bars. For parents to witness their child compete at the Olympics would be worth all those early-morning practices, private coaching fees and long-distance drives to tournaments. Indeed, it would be worth almost anything, wouldn’t it? Maybe even covering up a murder?
Megan Abbott’s novel “You Will Know Me” takes readers deep into the obsessive, highly structured world of young female gymnasts and the families who help push these athletes to victory. It’s a masterful tale that’s both suspenseful and an eerily accurate portrait of the way teenage and parental cliques operate.
The book’s central characters, Katie and Eric Knox, have overextended themselves emotionally and financially to support their 15-year-old daughter, Devon. Ever since Devon was 3 and began excelling at Tiny Tumblerz, gymnastics has been “the mighty spine of everything for them.” Even the arrival of Drew, Devon’s younger brother, didn’t displace her from the spotlight. Now, Devon is on the brink of possible Olympic greatness, under the expert tutelage of Coach Teddy, “the gymnast whisperer,” who presides over BelStars gym, which has become the Knoxes’ little corner of the universe. The gym’s “booster parties” constitute the extent of their social life; the other girls’ parents are their only friends. Or, “sort of” friends. Because Devon, after all, is the sun and the other girls merely her satellites.
One fateful night, however, that solar system threatens to collapse when a handsome young man named Ryan who works at BelStars is found dead, a victim of an apparent hit-and-run. Perhaps, some suggest, Ryan should have known better. It wasn’t smart to walk alone on a dark country road; it also wasn’t smart to be the lone young man amid a crowd of adolescent female gymnasts, whose natural sexual desires could be sublimated for only so long into soaring vaults and sweaty floor exercises.
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, but later sections take us into Devon’s mind. (The other girls call Devon “Ice Eyes” because she’s so opaque.) Throughout the novel, Abbott shrewdly dissects the cliques within cliques swirling within BelStars gym but never lets the suspense flag. 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 the novel proceeds and Ryan’s mysterious death threatens to monopolize Coach Teddy’s attentions and, thus, put Devon’s Olympic plans on hold, readers start to realize that a tiger mom lurks beneath Katie’s outer tranquillity. Here, for instance, is a scene late in the novel when Katie arrives at the gym looking for Devon and is treated to a catty brush-off from another mom, named Molly:
“ ‘We all know Devon’s the big gold dream,’ [Molly] said coolly. ‘But there are other gymnasts here too. Other girls count too.’
“Katie recognized the tone. From school events — the college fair, the Mother’s Day fashion show. . . .
“ ‘Well,’ Katie said, finally. Jaw set. Voice steady. ‘Only one counts to me.’ ”
A perfect 10 of a comeback!
We readers want to find Ryan’s killer, yes, sure we do. And Abbott steadily commands our attention with a suspense plot that unexpectedly somersaults and back flips whenever a landing seems in sight. But what’s even more ingenious about “You Will Know Me” is how artfully it draws us readers into that closed world of the BelStars gym. Chapter by chapter, we come to understand and share Katie and Eric’s intense parental obsession with Devon’s athletic career.
Poor Ryan — we do care about him, but we end up caring about Devon and her glorious possibilities even more. Getting her to the Olympics would be worth almost anything. Wouldn’t it?
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
By Megan Abbott
Little, Brown. 345 pp. $26