A boys soccer coach in Sedan, France, temporarily takes in his sister’s son and finds he may have the “little nugget” his team needs to excel.
Vincent saw his chances for a serious soccer career vanish with a knee injury at age 29 and turned to coaching. Ten years later, the under-16 team he works with in Sedan has little chance of success until his older sister, Madeleine, shows up, needing to drop off 13-year-old Leonard for 10 days while she takes a course to get a new job. The visit forces Vincent to make room in a solitary life that may trace back to an alcoholic, abusive father—he threw his son down a flight of stairs once, breaking his arm—and a complacent mother. It also introduces Vincent to Leonard’s Asperger’s syndrome and special talents. He excels at chess analysis, and, while staying with his uncle, applies the skill to soccer, eventually converting it to practical use as goalie for the team. For about half of this first novel, Gillot—a French journalist, screenwriter, and comic-book author—tells a fairly simple story that seems to promise against-the-odds sports heroism reminiscent of Bend It Like Beckham. In fact, complications arise on all sides as almost every character has a history of early abuse or neglect or abandonment. There’s a nice detour when Madeleine chases a can’t-lose investment and an intriguing character in the child psychologist who helps Vincent with Leonard. Whether Gillot’s resolution satisfies may depend on one’s desire for Hollywood endings. There’s no question he delivers a better overall book than the first half promised.
A slim, understated novel of nicely drawn vignettes, this is more consommé than bisque and might leave some readers unsatisfied.