The Happiest Girl in the World
- Author: Alena Dillon
- Genre: YA Contemporary Fiction
- Publication Date: April 20, 2021
- Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
CONTENT WARNING: sexual abuse of minors, disordered eating, emotional abuse, use of a racist slur
For Sera Wheeler, the Olympics are the reason for everything. They’re why she trains thirty hours a week, starves herself to under one hundred pounds, and pops Advil like Tic Tacs.
They’re why Sera’s mother, Charlene, hungry for glory she never had, rises before dawn to drive her daughter to practice in a different state, and why their family scrimps, saves, and fractures.
They’re why when Sera’s best friend reports the gymnastics doctor to the authority who selects the Olympic team, Sera denies what she knows about his treatments, thus preserving favor. Their friendship shatters. But Sera protected her dream — didn’t she?
Sera doubles down, taping broken toes, numbing torn muscles, and siphoning her family’s resources. Soon she isn’t training for the love of gymnastics; she’s training to make her disloyalty worthwhile, no matter the cost.
After the summer Olympics, I figured this could be an interesting read. However, I wasn’t exactly prepared for how close to the real story this was going to be.
Rather than taking inspiration from the real-life scandal that played out in the news, the author simply grabbed the actual story and inserted two new characters into it, changing the names of Larry Nassar and the Karolyis. But she kept the names of the famous gymnasts the same, and it made me wonder if she had gotten their approval to rehash their stories.
I did like Sera’s character, and getting to know her internal struggle. Lucy was easy to empathize with, and it was also clear to see that Sera was torn between her only friend and dream and how she was raised to be obedient and trust the adults around her, even when they didn’t have her best interests at heart.
It’s easy to watch the glamorous gymnasts on our television, performing amazing and flashy moves, without realizing the pain and sacrifice that they go through on a daily basis. This book really made that clear:
“Gymnasts were trained to be silent. … We performed through pain. We were hungry, but we didn’t eat. We sucked it up. We didn’t complain. We didn’t listen to our bodies or our instincts. That’s why we had coaches. The adults were the experts. They knew better than we did. The movements were too dangerous to risk ignoring the advice of experts. They told us we could trust the doctor, so we did. Simple as that. We trusted him. We smiled for the judges.”
After reading this, I don’t think I’ll ever look at gymnasts the same way again. And it doesn’t just take a toll on the girls themselves, but on the families and people who love them. Sera’s family pays a heavy price for her dreams.
I can’t help but think that this story could have been great if the author had let her creativity flow a bit more. I wish that she had used the real story as inspiration rather than an outline, and I think I would have really been able to immerse myself more fully.
Categories: Book Review