YOU WILL KNOW ME, by Megan Abbott. Little, Brown and Company, 345 pp., $26.
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 like the preceding provide the equivalent of eerie soundtrack music in Abbott’s novels. Her rendition of the everyday remark is like the close-up of a yellow pencil lying on a table in a horror movie, making the most mundane things feel terrifying. Most scenes end with short, innocuous comments, often in dialogue, that hang ominously in the air that follows: “Right. Whatever you say.” “Everyone’s counting on me.” “He’s not himself.” “I’m sorry. You surprised me.”
Soon enough, you’re like those parents at the gymnastic meet, riveted.
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 long-term compatibility are sustained by undimmed bedroom chemistry — until one day they are not.
For most of us, this leads to counseling or divorce. For the Knoxes, the unraveling 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 . . . with cat’s-eye glasses and braces, or thickly eye-linered and greasy-foreheaded, or donning Day-Glo nail polish and a do-rag, they all looked so much more like one another than like Devon. . . .
“A few feet apart from them . . . sat her tiny, herculean daughter, stallion thighs stretched against the denim of her jeans, her face wan and small. 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.