I’ve been wanting to read a Caela Carter book for a while now. Not only is she also an alum from The New School’s Writing for Children MFA program. But she wrote out a really great l list of advice for new students in the program that one of my professors circulated last year. It was so positive, straight-forward, and inspiring to read (and reread and readread), that I knew her books would be amazing. When I got the chance to read Tumbling, I was extra excited. As a kid, I was a big gymnastics fan. One of my earliest memories is staying up late to watch the Magnificent Seven win the gold medal in the 1996 Olympics (who could forget Kari Strug vaulting on her injured ankle). So I expected good writing. And I expected to be interested in the story. But I didn’t expect such a unique and ambitious story – in terms of structure and format, as much as anything else.
The book 400+ page book, takes place over just two days (the two-day Olympic trials) and is told from the perspective of five female gymnasts competing for spots on the national team. They range in age from fifteen to twenty. They range in height from 4’10” to 5’1″ – and some how those that are 5’1″ are compared to line backers. They have different specialties. Some want to go. Others have more complicated reasons for competing. Some are gymnastics stars. Others are completely unknown.
When I say unique and ambitious, what I’m mostly referring to is that five perspectives and two days is a lot of characters and not a lot of time to achieve a narrative arc. Romance is not the focus of this book. And, although it plays a much bigger role, friendship isn’t either. The book really is about each girl’s relationship to the sport of gymnastics.
There is a girl struggling with an eating disorder. A national champion who has to keep a large part of herself a secret. Two older girls trying to make comebacks in the sport in very different ways and for very different feelings. And then, last and sometimes least (just kidding!), a girl who no one expects to do well.
A lot, a lot of the book is devoted to descriptions of the girls gymnastics, both what the moves on bar, beam, vault, and floor look like and feel like. This was great for me because I love the sport, but other parts of the book made me feel really bad about gymnastics in general. More than half of the girls seemed to be in relationships with parents or coaches that were borderline abusive at best. And descriptions of the tole the sport took on their bodies – both through injuries and pressures to stay petite were really hard to read.
But I got totally invested in each character, even the ones I felt alienated from in the beginning. And despite a long length I sped through it pretty quickly.
This book is definitely tailor made for gymnastics nuts, and very fun to read as we’re gearing up for the summer Olympics. But it did raise some moral questions for me about the sport.