Hello, everyone! The price of perfection is not a novel theme in literature, but through the lenses of innocence, sex, and parenthood, Megan Abbott’s newest novel You Will Know Me spins a tired premise into a tense, grim look at the world of competitive gymnastics. Though I took issue with the Abbott’s writing style, the book won me over in the end due to its frank take on the often exploitative relationship between parents and their champion children. In a youth-driven sport like gymnastics, kids become legends in their teens and fade only a few years later. Abbott’s novel pokes at this phenomenon by questioning the ethics of a sport that pushes kids to their physical limits in an often futile quest for stardom.
Synopsis: Sixteen-year-old Devon is on a path to the Olympics. With the support of her devoted parents Katie and Eric and the adoration of her coach Teddy, the Belfour gym is certain that it can ride Devon’s success through the Senior Elite qualifiers and all the way to the top. But when Ryan, a favorite at the gym, is found killed by a hit and run, the orderly world of Belfour falls apart. Soon his girlfriend Hailey is a suspect and only Katie thinks otherwise. As she struggles to keep her family afloat until the qualifiers, the Belfour gym transforms from a haven to a hellhole and no one is above suspicion.
My take: Katie is the novel’s narrator, a wise choice, since she has enough familiarity with gymnastics to seem at home in the book, but just enough of an outsider’s perspective to be the reader’s window into this awe-inspiring, yet gruesome world. Most readers have seen a gymnast’s routine, most likely in the Olympics, where perfection is key, but Abbott doesn’t want the readers to focus on the glossy aspect of gymnasts, she wants them to focus on the grit, the pain, and most of all, the mental toughness it takes for a child to become a champion.
Her descriptions express this mix of respect and disgust:
There were the older ones, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. They were looking at their phones, or their moms, these hardened vets, biceps fist-thick, straight lines down to thighs powerful enough to anchor the world, none of them topping five foot three.
See what it does to them. A comment Katie overheard once, a parent at Devon’s school […] Devon. Whose ankles cracked when she walked up the stairs.
It came to Katie, that feeling. What have we done to them? What have I done?
Abbott takes this question of responsibility, of blame, and weaves it throughout the book. The overarching mystery of Ryan’s death is a device used to expose the lengths that some will go to to achieve greatness, even if it means sacrificing the life of another to achieve it. When the mystery is finally solved, the reader is left wondering who is really to blame for his death, the person who killed him, or a toxic gym culture that teaches young, malleable minds to value cutthroat competition over human compassion.
The concept of parenthood, and what it means to be a responsible parent, is at the center of the novel. After all, it was a lawnmower accident at age three that left Devon without two toes (which Abbott describes in gruesome detail) and pushed her on her path to gymnastic greatness. It’s Eric’s momentary lapse in judgment that is responsible for the accident, a mistake he attempts to repent for by supporting Devon through her training, raising money for the gym, and becoming her confidant. Abbott does a fantastic job at positioning Eric and Katie on the thinnest red line between supportive parents and fanatics living vicariously through their daughter. By pouring their whole lives into Devon, giving up careers, vacations, and even neglecting their other son Drew, they’ve become more dependent on her than she is on them. It’s hard not to feel pity for them and to wonder if we wouldn’t do the exact same thing in their situation.
Should we push children to greatness? One could argue that Drew, the Knox’s second child, has had a better life, devoid of the stress of his parent’s expectations. And while Devon has a golden future ahead of her, is a few years of greatness worth the two decades of normalcy she sacrificed to earn it? Abbott doesn’t answer these questions with any certainty, though the emphasis she places on the bitter, backstabbing nature of the Belfour gym definitely shows her disapproval of gymnastics culture. It’s the last few lines of the book, however, that leave the reader with no uncertainty towards Katie’s feelings, and perhaps, Abbott’s.
There she stood, Devon — her body, their body, one body — and all the exceptional talent contained within it. Her body, a machine. A marvel. Her body was everything. Her body was their heart.
Now for the parts I wasn’t quite a fan of. The biggest problem I faced reading this book was the prose. Abbott has a way of drawing out simple sentence into choppy fragments, which can get can frustrating. She also has a way of describing scenes that can be so abstract and overwritten that they distract from what is actually being said. I also don’t think her dialogue is realistic. She makes Drew, a little boy, into a philosopher, Belfour booster club president Gwen Weaver into a caricature of an antagonist, and Devon into a vague, spacey girl which seems at odds with her hyper-focused personality. I noticed these issues in her other novel, The Fever, which made it unreadable to me, but this book at least had an interesting enough plot to keep me invested.
The other problem I had with this book was its portrayal of sex. I mentioned this in my review of The Girls, but I’m seeing a very worrying trend of books that portray sex as a violent, destructive act. I saw this in The Fever, in which sex was portrayed as an evil, sickening thing, and in The Girls, where it was shown as only predatory. In this novel sex is used as a catalyst for murder. One character even says that “there’s a hundred ways sex can ruin you.” Even the consensual sex between Katie and her husband Eric is shown as vaguely violent.
I respect Abbott’s perspective on sex but this kind of rhetoric worries me. I don’t read books with teenage girl protagonists too often, yet the three I pick up this summer alone have “sex is bad” as one of their main themes. And they’re all written by women, too. If I was a young girl reading this, I might be left with the thought that sex is a life-ruiner. That’s scary. I highly doubt I would find this same kind of message in a book about a teen boy. I thought we were becoming a more sex-positive society, not a more repressed one. I hope, for all of our sakes, that this trend does not continue.
Final Consensus: You Will Know Me is a dark, raw glimpse into the inner world of competitive gymnastics. The novel delves deep into the foundations of girlhood and the difficult decisions that come with parenting. After reading this book, parents eager to sign their little girl up for gymnastics might think twice.