A dan­ger­ous world of teenage girls

A creepy novel about a teen gym­nast and fam­ily

The Hamilton Spectator - - BOOKS - MAR­ION WINIK

What would a 15-year-old with Olympic dreams do to make an elite gym­nas­tics team?

What would par­ents who have mort­gaged their lives in pur­suit of this am­bi­tion do to help her?

With her ninth novel, “You Will Know Me,” Megan Ab­bott re­turns again to the dan­ger­ous world of teenage girls, and like her cheer­lead­ing mur­der mys­tery, “Dare Me,” this one is set in the sweaty en­claves of fe­male ath­letic con­test. Ab­bott has ex­plained in an in­ter­view that the idea for the cur­rent plot grew out of a vi­ral video of a mom and dad so com­pletely pos­sessed by anx­i­ety on the side­lines of a gym­nas­tics meet that they un­con­sciously mimic their daugh­ter’s moves on the bar. But that was funny. Short, stac­cato sen­tences pro­vide the equiv­a­lent of eerie sound­track mu­sic in Ab­bott’s nov­els. Her ren­di­tion of the ev­ery­day re­mark is like the closeup of a yel­low pen­cil ly­ing on a ta­ble in a horror movie, mak­ing the most mun­dane things feel ter­ri­fy­ing.

Soon enough, you’re like those par­ents at the gym­nas­tic meet, riv­et­ted.

What puts flesh on the bones of Ab­bott’s fly­ing chee­tah of sus­pense is her in­sight into par­ent­ing, mar­riage and var­i­ous sorts of in­ter­per­sonal ri­valry, here em­bod­ied in Katie and Eric Knox, their hugely tal­ented daugh­ter, Devon, their sweet younger son, Drew — so ne­glected that he has to come down with scar­let fever to get any at­ten­tion — and the other par­ents and chil­dren in their gym­nas­tics club.

For ex­am­ple, on the par­ent­ing theme, Katie learns to her cha­grin in an early chap­ter that the jokes she shares with her daugh­ter about Devon’s mu­ti­lated “Franken­foot,” shaped into what has turned out to be a gym­nas­tics claw by a lawn mower ac­ci­dent when she was a tod­dler, have not been so well re­ceived. “Even Mom thought her foot made her look like a mon­ster.”

“That’s what par­ent­hood was about, wasn’t it?” Katie re­al­izes. “Slowly un­der­stand­ing your child less and less un­til she wasn’t yours any­more but her­self.”

You don’t need an Olympic hope­ful in the fam­ily to con­cur. Katie and Eric’s mar­riage will res­onate with some read­ers too, those whose fray­ing con­nec­tions and du­bi­ous longterm com­pat­i­bil­ity are sus­tained by undimmed bed­room chem­istry — un­til one day they are not.

For most of us, this leads to coun­selling or divorce. For the Knoxes, the un­rav­el­ling in­volves the pos­si­ble homi­cide of a beau­ti­ful young man, the boyfriend of the coach’s niece, one Ryan Beck, whose ar­rival at a party sends “all the girls into satel­lites of whis­pered frenzy” while their boozed-up moms flirt more openly.

The char­ac­ters of the adult women in this book, none com­pletely lik­able, are know­ingly de­picted. Katie, the ice-queen mother of the star; Gwen, whose daugh­ter has lit­tle talent but whose for­tune fu­els the booster club; Molly, who takes any ex­cuse to throw her arms around Katie’s at­trac­tive hus­band and press her “quiv­er­ing breasts” against his chest.

The gym­nasts, on the other hand — Devon most of all — are seen from a re­move, so that when we find out what kind of girl is flip­ping around in that se­quined leo­tard, it will be a shock. Un­til then, we know no more than the in­creas­ingly fran­tic Katie, spying into her daugh­ter’s phone and diary. To­ward the end, she shows up at her daugh­ter’s school:

“It had been a while, more than a while, since she’d seen Devon among so many other girls her age. Non-gym girls … Her feet, mis­shapen and scarred, hid­den in her soft­est pair of sneak­ers. Nearly six­teen. Fear­less. Ex­tra­or­di­nary. Like no one else. Only like her­self. Who­ever that was.”

“Why do you al­ways leave me by my­self?” won­ders her lit­tle son, con­tin­u­ally aban­doned in the car, in the bleach­ers, or at home.

Good ques­tion, kid. The com­plex­ity of the an­swer is what lifts Ab­bott above other writ­ers in this genre, mak­ing her some­thing of a Stephen King, whose work hangs right on the edge of the lit­er­ary while mak­ing your skin crawl.

HA­CHETTE BOOK GROUP, TNS

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