BOOK REVIEW: The Happiest Girl in the World by Alena Dillon

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4/5 stars

Like most young American girls, I loved the splendour and ceremony of the Olympics on TV, but no event captured my awe quite like gymnastics. I tumbled my way through kiddie gymnastics classes, imagining myself as one of the star athletes on the podium, somewhat oblivious to the fact that I couldn’t do a cartwheel (I still can’t). Even as an adult I still love watching the gravity-defying stunts of the gymnastics events and what felt like the pure, unbridled joy of the athletes when they stuck their landing and knew they had won gold. I loved seeing their smiling faces on cereal boxes and Tampax commercials and guest judging dumb reality shows and making public appearences in their gold medals and impossibly high ponytails, posing with Barack Obama. But as The Happiest Girl in the World explores, we know all too well the human cost of that success.

Dillon’s novel focuses on Sera Wheeler, a dynamic young gymnast training for greatness beyond her bland Indiana hometown, forging a deep friendship with Lucy, a fellow Indiana gymnast invited to train at a thinly-disguised Karolyi Ranch, with a doctor whose compassion for the girls training there feels all too familiar. Sera’s friendship with Lucy comes to a head at the camp, showing the precise moment when the cameras turn off and these elite athletes stop being friends.

Dillon does a really fantastic job of blending fact and fiction in this work, with details obviously lifted from the many-headed hydra of USA Gymnastics and its scandals, as well as name-drops of recognisable American gymnasts (Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, et al) without feeling like fanfiction. The strongest part of the narrative is the exploration of the cost of this pursuit, beyond just Sera as an athlete–from the tension in her parents’ marriage to her brother having to neglect college dreams to her mother starting to find more purpose in her “gymnastics mom” identity than is healthy. It’s a sprawling narrative, covering ten years of Sera’s career, and the pain and promise of the four years between every Olympics cycle.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Dillon is or was a gymnast–the technical language is there without being too cumbersome, and while there are some of the expected cliches of any Bob Costas Olympic montage, The Happiest Girl in the World remains essential reading as we head into an Olympics coloured not just by Covid-19, but by the systemic abuse of young athletes for the sake of national glory.

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