Energetic first novel shows a talented athlete moving toward the Olympics and away from a Kansas family crippled by emotional instability and grievous loss.
We first glimpse protagonist-narrator Philomena, nicknamed Pip, as an infant gradually adjusting to her family and environment. She’s precociously skilled at demanding attention: “I’ve been experimenting with howling like a wolf,” she tells us at nine months old. Despite the hovering, intimidating presences of her depressed mom, borderline-flaky dad (a research scientist studying bat behavior) and contentious sisters, Pip is soon garlanded with as many great expectations as was her Dickensian namesake. She’s a physically gifted, naturally competitive swimmer who breaks local and state records while competing for her school and church before nabbing gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and moving on to further triumphs. The novel settles into bristling rhythms that contrast Pip’s conquests of the swimming world, college and even sex (which she has always dreaded) with successive personal crises and tragedies that shake her confidence, setting her at odds with demanding coaches, dictatorial nuns and frustrating boyfriends as she tests the tricky waters of growing up and making choices. Slightly reminiscent of Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks (1976), though the sexual emphases here are more varied, the novel boasts as its best feature insouciant, perky prose offered in a rollicking, present-tense narrative voice. Too bad, therefore, that Keegan lets the story trail away after sending Pip to Paris for a period of self-scrutiny. Her conclusion offers nothing more revelatory than token acceptance of whatever the future holds for an athlete “retired” while still an unfinished woman.
Flags a little at the finish line, but nonetheless well worth plunging into.