Carrie Soto is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Ballantine, 384 pages)
You know when a book’s protagonist is really hard to like but, for reasons that you can’t quite understand, you root for her anyway? That is Carrie Soto.
When we meet Carrie, she’s 37 and has been retired from professional tennis for six years. After watching Nicki Chan match her Grand Slam record, she decides to come out of retirement and win back her spot at the top of the tennis world.
Taylor Jenkins Reid has created a character in Carrie who is so real, I keep expecting her to show up in daily sports headlines. But her name appears in fictional media stories time and again, as Jenkins Reid uses sports commentary and news articles to help shed light on what the world thinks of Carrie. And the world sees her exactly as she is: supremely talented but ruthless. In fact, she was given the nickname of “the Battle-Axe” when she was in her prime.
We see some of that ruthlessness during a press conference that takes place during her first event back, the Australian Open. One of the reporters asks if there’s truth to her comeback being a stunt. Carrie responds, “I’ve proven so far that my game is outstanding. So everyone can whine and moan all they want about me being here, but I’ve earned the right.”
Another reporter asks about her upcoming match, to which she replies, “I’m gonna crush Carla Perez and anyone else I play on my way to the final. I’m going to hold their beating hearts in my hand.”
That’s Carrie, inside and out. She’s as abrasive internally as she is externally; it’s not just a show for the media. She’s hard on everyone else, and she’s equally hard on herself. We see this in the thoughts that permeate her mind during her games, including during a tight match against Natasha Antonovich, one of her more formidable rivals.
“I do not look at my father. I do not want to see the worry in his eyes. I tell myself: Do not let her win this set. You are either a champion or a ****up. There is no in-between.”
Rarely, we see Carrie’s vulnerability. She puts a hard wall up against Bowe Huntley, a fellow tennis pro with whom she’d gotten too close to in the past. She has the chance to train with him again, and she imagines a scenario in which she does let him back into her life.
“He’ll say something wonderful at some point, and I’ll start to believe he means it, despite all evidence to the contrary. And then I’ll start to like him or love him or feel something that I swear I’ve never felt before. And then one day, when I’m in too deep, he’ll stop liking or loving me, for one reason or another. And I’ll be left with a hole in my heart.”
Also softening the storyline is Carrie’s relationship with her dad and coach, Javier, a former pro himself. Their relationship, at first, seems all business; when Carrie trains with him as a child, Javi is demanding and has what some might see as unrealistically high expectations. But as the story goes on, we see how deeply he loves her and just wants her to be happy. And Carrie’s feelings for him change, seeming to soften over the years. She had fired him as her coach during her pre-retirement career, but she agrees to work with him for her comeback. Javi becomes a likable character, an endearing foil to Carrie’s hard-headedness.
Carrie Soto is Back is very much about tennis, but don’t let that stop you from picking it up, even if you care nothing about sports in general or tennis in particular. I’ve never played tennis, never watched more than a few minutes of tennis, and never really cared to. But Carrie is tennis, and who she is is expressed through her intense tennis practices, tennis games and tennis relationships.
It helps that Jenkins Reid has done her homework. According to an Aug. 29 interview on The Cut, Reid has played tennis for fun, but “I don’t think I’ve ever won a game, let alone a set or a match. … I had to learn it all for this book, and I’m very insecure about it. Did I learn it right? I don’t know, guys. I’m an imposter. I’m trying really hard. I’m trying to learn as much as I can so that I can give you a good time.”
Jenkins Reid has done just that. Carrie Soto is Back is a good time, not in spite of Carrie’s brashness — or the intense focus on tennis — but because of it. A-