Carrie Soto retires from professional tennis at age 32 as the winningest player in the history of the Women’s Tour. However, five years later she watches in horror as her mark of 20 Grand Slams is tied by the younger star, Nicki Chan. Unwilling to let go of her most cherished accomplishment, Soto decides to come out of retirement alongside her father/coach Javier and take another crack at extending her record before Chan can surpass it.
In Soto, Taylor Jenkins Reid has rendered an unusual protagonist. Having trained from a young age with the sole purpose of becoming the best tennis player in the world, she has few other interests and a lackluster personal life. Her fellow players can’t stand her because she is so cold and unfriendly toward them, and she doesn’t have many passionate fans because she refuses to play nice off the court. Coming back at the age of 37, however, wins her some begrudging admiration, especially as she proves she still belongs on the court with the top players. Will it be enough for her to achieve her audacious goal, or will she perhaps learn a more important lesson along the way?
Reid has an undeniable talent for writing clear, compelling prose. She also manages to quite easily give her characters an air of reality. Carrie Soto may be a hard person to like, but she’s easy to recognize. In her other novels, like Daisy Jones and the Six, Malibu Rising, and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Reid has done an admirable job at building out the world of her fictions and loading them up with telling details.
In Carrie Soto is Back, however, Reid’s world-building is far less assured. It is unclear how much Reid really knows about tennis, or how much research she did. She makes some missteps and factual errors that take the reader out of the story. I was puzzled as to why Soto’s “record” was 20 Grand Slams when the actual record, belonging to Margaret Court, is 24. I was ready to begrudgingly chalk that up to the novel’s fictional timeline until Reid mentioned Court herself, thereby making the diminishing of her record even weirder. Another irksome error occurs at Wimbledon, where Carrie Soto is annoyed that the Men’s Final doesn’t end until almost midnight. The Men’s Final is played in the early afternoon, and would never be played in the dark like that. It’s not the U.S. Open.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a compelling enough story off the court to mitigate against these unforced errors. Yes, Carrie attempts to understand her father better and also rekindles an old flame with a player on the Men’s Tour, but the bulk of Reid’s attention is on her protagonist’s quixotic, inexplicable quest. It’s a difficult journey for the reader to go along with, largely because Soto’s plan makes no logical sense. Her record has already been tied by a significantly younger player. What are the odds that by playing four more tournaments Soto could extend that record far enough to keep it forever? More urgently, why should the reader care if she does?
Reid has stranded an arresting, original character in a plodding, conventional story. It’s a real double-fault on her part.