I can’t remember how I learned about The Happiest Girl In The World, Alena Dillon’s novel about a rising gymnastics star and her experience with the U.S. gymnastics program, now known for its abuse of young athletes and decades of covering up. I read about it somewhere and put it on my library hold list, and it came in, and my mood and this book were aligned at the right moment a few weeks ago. I found it on audio on Scribd, and here we are. The Happiest Girl In The World is a sort of hybrid between reality and fiction, with a fictional main character, a few characters who are thinly veiled versions of real-life people, and then a few people who are actual real-life people. Interesting setup.
Why I picked it up: Who hasn’t wondered what was going through the minds of the gymnasts and their families when the truth came out about USA Gymnastics? Plus, the Summer Olympics are around the corner.
Sera Wheeler is a young gymnast in Indiana who decides to go all in on gymnastics when a coach tells her mother she has promise. This kicks off many years of hard work and sacrifice, with fulltime training and summers spent at the Balogh ranch (aka the Karolyi compound), where she endures punishing workouts and great strain on her body. Sera’s best friend, Lucy, confides in her that the team doctor (aka Larry Nassar) has been doing inappropriate exams under the guise of helping her with “alignment”. A few years later, when Sera has the chance to corroborate her friend’s allegations, she makes a decision that impacts not only their friendship, but Sera’s gymnastics career.
I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at the life of a gymnast and the massive sacrifices they and their families make just to try to get to the top. Half of the chapters are told from the perspective of Charlene, Sera’s mother, who pushes her daughter and turns a blind eye to the abuse in the sport because of her own selfish need to be someone important.
But in the end The Happiest Girl In The World fell a bit flat. The author’s use of some real people – gymnasts we’ve all heard of – mixed with fictional versions of the abusers in USA Gymnastics was strange. Because Dillon didn’t tell an actual gymnast’s story – she just guessed at it – she walked an awkward middle road in her writing. I don’t know that the book really contributed that much to the story we all know, as the perpetrators remained as opaque at the end as always. Sera and Charlene are memorable characters, but the book was a bit of a slog. Plus there is a covid/quarantine/Olympics delay part at the end that felt tacked on. (It probably was.) Overall, this one was just ok for me.
I listened to The Happiest Girl In The World on audio. The narrators for Sera and Charlene were both good, though Mikhaila Aaseng’s Charlene really stood out with her midwestern twang and unapologetic assertiveness.
The Happiest Girl In The World was the 32nd book of 2021.