O’Neill’s debut novel tracks an aspiring figure skater’s journey of obsession, triumph, failure, and addiction.
In a psych ward in New Hampshire, 17-year-old Alivopro “Ali” Doyle tells her doctor, “In the beginning was skating, and skating was everything….” At one time, Ali was an Olympic hopeful training for the regional championships, until a fall on the ice caused neck trauma and ended her amateur career. As the narrative weaves through sessions with her psychiatrist and a recounting of her training as a figure skater, what emerges is not a predictable story of loss and hope but a complex family drama. While Ali’s father, Alvin, embraces her ambition as a distraction from his own depression, her mother, Lou, is more disturbed by Ali’s single-minded desire to be a champion at any cost. Further complicating this dynamic is that Ali is adopted, born to a Native American mother. For Ali, her ethnicity and unknown heritage bring up insecurities about her body as she tries to keep herself in “Olympic condition,” and her adoption often becomes a sticking point in arguments between Ali and Lou. After her accident, the family that was tentatively held together by a common goal begins to fall apart. Ali becomes addicted to amphetamines, determined to lose weight and start skating again, with predictably disastrous results. The entry into this novel can be difficult. The chronology is often unclear; many chapters are almost exclusively unmarked dialogue between Ali and her therapist; and sometimes the reader is not given enough context to fully understand a scene. But the book soars in its descriptions of figure skating, capturing its strange and brutal beauty and achieving a beauty of its own in the process.
For fans of figure skating, this book is edgy and serious enough to not feel like a guilty pleasure.