A snake pit of cutthroat ethical ambiguity and twisted psychodrama—otherwise known as junior high girls sports—is explored in this rich, sprawling coming-of-age saga.
In the wealthy suburb of Lake Oswego, Oregon, athletics rule the lives of many kids—and even more so their parents. Among them are seventh-grader Layla Blessing and her girlfriends on the Lake Oswego Junior High Lakers basketball squad and the local soccer club; Layla’s dad, Alex, who winds up coaching both teams to his daughter’s frequent exasperation; Emily, a Chinese-American soccer whiz with an eating disorder brought on by her tiger-parents’ perfectionism; and Chelsea, a court phenom for whom basketball is the only way of engaging with her father. A year in the lives of these and many other characters proceeds through practices, organizational meetings, tournament trips, miscellaneous school activities, and games that the author narrates with detailed play-by-play and strategic analyses that are gripping enough for a Final Four showdown. Journalist Duin (Oil and Water, 2011) uses the subculture of teen sports as a window onto the soul of suburbia, on its genteel yet manic competitiveness and its outsized investments, both material and psychological, in the achievements of offspring. The narrative unfolds in long, luxuriant scenes of ordinary life: girls tanning and gossiping on a dock, awkward school dances, bantering corporate golf games, chance encounters at Starbucks, dinner tables seething with unspoken recriminations. Seemingly trivial sports contests anchor an adult novel that shows us shadows—a charismatic coach turns out to be a masterfully manipulative predator—and real depth in the girls’ (and their parents’) struggles to understand the difference between the rules of the game and genuine morality. Duin’s subtle prose renders all this with pitch-perfect characterizations and razor-sharp social nuance. Sometimes he lays on the pitiless existentialism a bit too thick (“I’ll miss the savage beauty of it,” muses one hard man, reflecting on the ruthless Darwinian culling of weak from strong in seventh-grade girls’ soccer. “Honor and dignity don’t win in the end”). Still, there’s drama beyond the scoreboard in watching these children—and adults—grow up a little more.
A fine tale of kids’ games with surprisingly high stakes.