“Families are machines of glorious dysfunction,” says crime novelist Megan Abbott of the driving force behind her latest novel, You Will Know Me (LJ 5/1/16, p. 61), “and that’s okay and inevitable.” Set in the high-stakes world of competitive girls’ gymnastics, in which lithe bodies flip and twirl and entire lives seem to depend on the precision of a vault dismount, the book both follows in the footsteps of Abbott’s previous two works, The Fever (2014) and Dare Me (2012), and blazes a distinct new trail.
In You Will Know Me, the Knox family unites behind gymnast wunderkind Devon, a child prodigy with the serious demeanor of a seasoned adult veteran. Parents Eric and Katie invest everything—time, money they don’t necessarily have, affection—into Devon’s success, and younger brother Drew is often just along for the ride, spending hours in the bleachers while his sister competes. The Knoxes’ Olympic hopes are buoyed by charismatic coach Teddy Belfour at the local BelStars gym, who, despite grumbling from other parents, devotes all his energy to Devon. The gym, thick with chalk dust and tamped-down teen-girl hormones, is both the safe space where dreams are born and a dangerous intersection of unspoken desires. It’s where Ryan Beck, the boyishly attractive beau of one of the assistant coaches, works, and it’s Ryan’s death later on that splinters the Knoxes’ lives and threatens Devon’s gold medal trajectory.
Desire—for an elusive Olympic berth, for a perfect floor routine, for a happy child—is one of the through lines of Abbott’s story, and, as she notes, “all of my books are, in some ways, about desire. Maybe all crime novels are, whether it’s desire for a person, a thing, or everything.” Separating the aspiration of a parent who wants a content, successful youngster—the product of hours in the gym and thousands of dollars spent on glittery leotards and lucky hand grips—and the passion of that child, the bearer of a family’s expectations, is easier said than done. Abbott adds that ambition can “take us to grand and also dark places” but “it also makes us human.” Looking at what Katie and Devon seek, she says, “It’s pretty hard to step out of one’s own longing and examine where does Devon’s desire begin and [Katie’s] end.”
The novel’s idea of longing is complicated by the insular nature of family, both the Knoxes and the BelStars gym family. The characters go to great lengths to achieve their goals, but they go further to protect one another, often with tragically contradictory results. It’s this fierce parental devotion that forms one of the story’s most painful truths. This kind of love, Abbott remarks, “heals wounds, it creates wounds, it exacerbates wounds, and it salves them.”
Spurred on by watching the 2012 Summer Olympics and reading Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, Abbott knew that she wanted to focus on the intricacies of the exceptional child and how that can lead to, as she puts it, “the insular quality of certain families when one member dominates by force or fate.”
As with The Fever, which is also “foremost a book about a family,” Know Me’s crime elements function not only as ways to understand the richly developed characters but also as pieces of a satisfying plot.
“The crime for me,” Abbott explains, “is a way of exploring character. But I firmly believe in the crime as the narrative line and never cheating the reader on resolutions.” The brutal, jarring offense at the heart of her novel permeates its every aspect, sticking to each character like a sheen of sweat. Abbott, a self-described “devotee of true crime,” points out that her favorite examples in the genre are those that “end up revealing so much about family, class, social pressures—all this stuff that’s not just about who held the gun and pulled the trigger.”
Although an adolescent girl is the focus here, little action takes place where most teens spend their time: high school. “It’s funny,” Abbott says, “how school life is so absent…after two books in a row where high school is at the center.” Yet the author makes clear that this is also Katie’s story. “The reason for the one scene that occurs in a high school is to have Katie face this part of her daughter’s world about which she realizes she knows nothing. It’s a more extreme version of what every parent goes through when they’re confronted with this experience of their child’s that is not theirs and over which they have minimal control.”
At the gym, everything is tightly monitored, even the girls’ figures, scrutinized constantly for any sign of natural development that could hobble an elite run. There, Devon’s body “is a machine, or a magnificent tool.” Although physiological change is inevitable, the adults in the novel are “trying to forestall what should be natural,” says Abbott. “Not to keep [Devon] a child but to permit her to in some ways be free of nature’s demands. To seize its powers.”
This exceptional youth, the axis around which the Knox family teeters but keeps spinning, is as much a molded product of her environment of cheerleaders and benefactors as she is an individual. And the Knoxes prove that, as Abbott succinctly states, “family is the mystery that one never unravels.”