With twenty Grand Slam and nine Wimbledon wins, Carrie Soto is the most successful and highest-paid female athlete of her time. When injuries made it impossible to continue at an elite level she retired from tennis in 1989. But when she watches Nicki Chan tie her record on the path to exceed it Carrie’s ego spurs her to mount a comeback at the age of 37 to the sport she dominated five years before. It is the return of the Battle Axe, the woman everyone just wishes would stay gone. But like it or not, Carrie Soto is coming back.
There is something to be said for telling a familiar story well with enough of a twist to make it unique. That is what Taylor Jenkins Reid does with Carrie Soto is Back. Reid takes the frame of the well-worn sports drama template and infuses it with dynamic energy. It can be argued this is Reid’s true talent. She is an enormously gifted writer, but she tells the story of famous women using a familiar structure (a band autobiography in Daisy Jones & the Six, a primetime soap for Malibu Rising, etc.,) and achieves startling results. The key is her characters, which are always complex and grow and change over the course of the story. Usually in ways that surprise themselves as well as the reader.
Reid divides her story starting with a lengthy flashback of Carrie Soto’s life leading up to her retirement, followed by her comeback preparing for and competing in the various Slams. Soto is a complex woman, driven to succeed and win at all costs. She also is arrogant, abrasive, has very few friends, and is emotionally stunted. Her supernatural ambition has come with a price, she has put all her attention on winning with laser-like focus. When her records are threatened by reigning powerhouse Nicki Chan she sees no choice but to re-enter the sport and defend her titles. Carrie Soto may be difficult to get along with, but she’s not alone on this journey.
Her father, Javier, is a famous player in his own right and Carrie’s coach. He has taught her from the age of six, but for all his lessons about winning, he seems to have missed the ones about humility and grace in defeat. Along with Javier is Bowe Huntley, an over-the-tennis-hill player on the cusp of retirement but going for one last shot at glory before the end. Javier brings Bowe on as a training partner for Carrie, once it is evident early on no one else wants to play with her. Carrie and Bowe have a history between them, stemming from a one-night stand years before in Paris that ended with hurt feelings. The complicated relationship between the two of them, as well as the relationship between Carrie and Javier, drive the novel just as much as the matches.
I am not a tennis player, nor am I an avid fan. I enjoy watching the sport when it is on but don’t seek it out. Still, I didn’t have trouble following the matches and the ebb and flow of the contests as they unfolded. The finale match is never really in question from the beginning. There isn’t a lot in the story of Carrie Soto is Back that will surprise anyone with even a passing exposure to fictional sports stories. However, you won’t mind that you can see the story beats coming because Reid sells them with 100% authenticity.
Carrie learns about herself over the journey and comes to realize she is playing against herself more than she is against her competitors. We know this is going to be the case from the beginning. But it’s the way that she learns, and how she rails and rebels against even the thought of failure, that makes her so compelling to read about. Even when she displays a softer side, it is still edged in barbed wire. She’s a difficult person, but those closest to her not only see her good qualities, but they also ACCEPT her bad ones and love her for who she is without trying to change her. The counterpoint to this is the brief interludes featuring transcripts of tennis commentators giving their opinions of Soto, including a hot-mic incident where one man calls her a bitch. While initially taken aback by it, Carrie eventually embraces and accepts that to some she will always be “the bitch” to her detractors that wish she stayed retired. She uses their dismissal as fuel.
Carrie Soto is Back doesn’t re-invent the sports template but it doesn’t have to. The novel is a fast-moving, compelling, and insightful look into the mind of a superstar who cannot accept defeat. It is also one of the best books of the year.
Note: A good recent interview with Reid, including details on the status of the various adaptations of her work, can be found here.