The Short Version: Devon is a young gymnast with incredible talent. Her family – and her gym – believe that she could make it to the Olympics and all of them do what they can to make sure she’s able to compete at the highest. But after tragedy strikes their small community, the lines between right and wrong are no longer so clear – and Devon’s mother Katie has to figure out if she ever really knew her daughter at all…
The Review: I love a good, propulsive thriller. There’s a reason people keep looking for “The Next [insert name of great thriller here]” and it’s because a novel that is so skilfully plotted, so meticulous with its doling out of information and its playing with the truth, always leaves you wanting more. Megan Abbott, while she might (criminally) not have the name recognition of somebody like Gillian Flynn, is the kind of author whose books, every single one of them, does that thing of leaving you wanting more.
Abbott’s previous novel, The Fever, was one that I liked but did not love – I found myself a little too conscious of the story she was telling, a little too aware that we might not ever know everything. But what struck me there (and her novel prior to that, the masterful Dare Me) was her skill at capturing the nearly unknowable minds of adolescent girls. One’s teenage years are, even for the popular kids, a terrifying time – and Abbott manages to simultaneously evoke the reader’s memories of those times while presenting a completely realistic picture of what is quite likely a totally different experience than that reader might’ve had at that age.
You Will Know Me is a perfect example: I know absolutely nothing about the world of competitive gymnastics, beyond what I see at the Olympics every four years. I could not tell you what a landing pit looks like and while I know that there are spins and what-not, I don’t know what any of those things are. But I do remember being 15, curious about the world and striving to find what I might want to do in it – a way in which I could be perfect and excel and prove that I was the best. It was probably theater for me at the time – and I wager there’s a novel out there (perhaps to be written by Ms. Abbott) about a high school theater community.
But that’s for another time. Right now, gymnastics. Abbott sucks us into the story in a scene full of frivolity and portent; a party that our narrator, Katie (thirty-something mom), recounts for us while also alluding to a future that would not be so joyous. We, as readers, are on our guard. We learn quickly where the tragedy will strike but not its context – and while it takes nearly the entire book to come around to the reveal, Abbott never lets us get ahead of the game. There are feints, red herrings, double-crosses, and more and Abbott rolls it all out with the effortless flow of a master.
She also gives readers a sense of what it is to be a mother in ways that I know are often talked about but are so rarely put onto the page. Mothers who pulls cars off of their children are obviously the stuff of newspaper stories – but the smaller-scale version of that, the lioness protecting her cubs, is something I’ve rarely seen so vividly rendered on the page. There are inexpressible emotions that well up when you think about your offspring, about the world that they’re being sent out into, and the ways in which they transform from your dependent into fully-functional human beings is… well, I imagine it’s even more inexpressible than I think it might be (having not yet done it myself). Yet I saw, in Katie, my own mother. I wager most readers will do the same – and, in that, this book allows us to do what only the best books can do: give us insight into our own lives, even when they barely even glancingly touch on the subject matter in the novel.
As Katie’s world begins to spin apart, we’re led towards thoughts not just of our own internal struggles but of the price of fame and infamy. What does it mean to strive, to be the best, to succeed above all others and against all odds? How do you adapt to a world that fights back against you? What does it take out of you, out of your soul – or, if it’s not taking, how is it changing you – to push for excellence above all else? Abbott, wisely, doesn’t give us answers so much as a harrowing look at a quote-unquote “unlikeable” decision that chooses excellence and success above what we might consider “the right thing to do”. I can’t say that I would make different decisions than these characters do – and that, more than anything, is the most gripping thing about this book.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. A speedy read that delivers genuine surprises and twists of plot, ones that will surprise even if you predict them. Abbott has a knack for capturing the roiling madness that is adolescence – but here, she also shows how even adults barely leave that madness behind (if they do at all). It’s a great look at what it takes to be the best and the terrible sacrifices that you might be called upon to make in such circumstances. The darkest thing about this book is also the best: Abbott’s characters make the realistic choices in those moments, not the ones that are “right”. You’ll never look at Olympic cheerleading the same way.