Nature is ominous in the world of Megan Abbott. Whether it’s a black, polluted lake (The Fever), or an infestation of bagworms in a walnut tree (You Will Know Me), there’s a sense that something sickly is creeping in from the edges, overtaking one’s surroundings and very self. Whether that dark something is unnatural (like motor oil in a lake), or all too natural (like puberty), is a question left to the reader. Take this line, about a tree in the protagonist’s backyard:
It turned out there was a poison in the tree’s roots that stunted or poisoned everything around it. The petunias Katie once planted there shriveled to pale ribbons.
The mood Abbott creates is at once grotesque and seductive, like overripe fruit just on the verge of rotting. This is as true as ever in Abbott’s latest novel, You Will Know Me.
Having previously explored high school cheerleading in Dare Me, Abbott returns to a similar world in You Will Know Me: elite gymnastics. It is a world of teenage girls of uncommon strength and intensity, of bodies kept small and tight and contained, sealed off from the typical hallmarks of high school (boys, parties, etc.). These girls don’t have time for that. They are driven by something larger. These girls have goals.
No one in You Will Know Me has bigger goals than Devon Knox, the preternaturally gifted 15-year-old gymnast around whom the story’s major events swirl. The story is told from the perspective of Devon’s mother, Katie. Katie and her husband, Eric, were not gymnastics devotees prior to Devon. But after a childhood accident (a lawnmower, two baby toes) lands Devon in a gymnastics class as a form of physical therapy, it becomes immediately, overwhelmingly obvious that Devon is a genius at the sport. And so, in an effort to give this unbelievably gifted child the support she needs, the entire family (including Devon’s little brother, Drew) becomes a well-oiled machine devoted to Devon’s future.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Abbott noted her inspiration for this latest work, saying, “I was really interested in families with prodigies and how they operate, with the parents and child and siblings. It’s a powder keg.” Or to put it another way, using the promotional line from Abbott’s website:
“When you have an extraordinary child,” Katie said, a heat under her eyes, “you’ll do anything for her…”
Over the course of You Will Know Me, the Knox parents are forced to ask themselves how much they will do in the name of Devon and her career. Spoiler: it’s a lot.
I thoroughly enjoyed the full, dark ride of it, as I have with Abbott’s previous works. (I’ve read everything except her first book, The Street Was Mine, a nonfiction work which is on my “to read” list.) I have glowing praise for all of them. The first four fiction books (Die A Little, The Song is You, Queenpin, and Bury Me Deep) are all “classic” noir, set in the 1930s-1950s, though with more complicated female characters than you find in some of the celebrated books of that genre.
But starting with 2011’s The End of Everything, Abbott’s stories have been contemporary, exploring the millions of ways a person can lose their innocence when crossing the bridge between childhood and adulthood. In other words, her most recent four books (The End of Everything, Dare Me, The Fever, and You Will Know Me) are about teenagers. Much as I loved the retro world of her earlier stuff, this contemporary turn is fascinating.
What I found particularly interesting in You Will Know Me was that it was not just about a loss of innocence for 15-year-old Devon, but also her mother, Katie. And really, one could argue, for the whole Knox family. All four members of the Knox clan are forced to come to terms with what acts they are capable of committing, what secrets they are willing to keep, and what secrets the people they thought they knew best have been keeping from one another. It’s not just teenagers who must come to grips with these difficult lessons; life forces them upon all of us, over and over, and there is a risk they may destroy us every time.
When one is parent to an extraordinary child for whom one would do “anything,” those lessons are more brutal than ever. But they also give life purpose. Devon’s talent gives a shape and direction to the Knox family’s life. And that’s worth something, no matter how arbitrary the purpose may be. At a party with other gymnastics parents, another mother asks Katie whether she ever wanted something as badly as Devon when she was a teen:
“Remember that kind of wanting? That kind that’s just for yourself? And you don’t even have to feel guilty about it? You wouldn’t know you should.”
Katie nodded and nodded and nodded, because it felt true even if she couldn’t name the thing she’d wanted. But something. Looking around, she wondered, Was it this?
Whatever Katie may have wanted in her youth, she has lost it. Devon is the one who wants something now, and she will do anything to get it. As a mother, Katie humbly submits:
After all, who wouldn’t do anything for one’s child? Especially when that child worked harder and wanted something more than either of them ever had? Who wanted in ways they’d long forgotten how to want or had never known at all?
The comfort and sense of purpose that Devon’s talent and determination provide causes the Knox parents to continue to shape their lives around Devon even as it leads them into increasingly ambiguous moral territory:
Just knowing they were back on the Track, even if it was a new one, made everything better. Brought order back into their lives.
These ideas could easily be extended beyond You Will Know Me and child prodigies and into the world of parenting in general. Our culture asks a lot of parents, mothers in particular. But in return for that sacrifice and sublimation of self, parents are promised a true sense of purpose, one with an intensity they could never acquire anywhere else. In the words of Gwen Weaver, the most unwavering and icy of the gymnastics moms in You Will Know Me:
“It doesn’t matter whose dream it is,” she said. “Just that there’s a dream.”
But You Will Know Me suggests that perhaps it does matter whose dream it is; perhaps not just any dream will do, and some sacrifices are too great. Maybe the real role of a parent is to determine where the line is, and then stick to it, even if it grieves you to tell your child “no.” Maybe that’s the only way to stop the dark, sickly things from creeping in from the edges.