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Review: The Happiest Girl in the World by Alena Dillon

Title: The Happiest Girl in the World

AuthorAlena Dillon

Year Published: 2021

Category: Adult fiction (sports)
Pages: 384
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location (my 2021 Google Reading map) USA (IN, OH, TX, CA), Qatar

Summary (from Amazon): For Sera Wheeler, the Olympics is the reason for everything. It’s why she trains thirty hours a week, starves herself to under 100 pounds, and pops Advil like Tic Tacs.

For her mother, Charlene, hungry for glory she never had, it’s why she rises before dawn to drive Sera to practice in a different state, and why the family scrimps, saves, and fractures. It’s 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 pouring her family’s resources into the sport. Soon she isn’t training for the love of gymnastics. She’s training to make her disloyalty worthwhile. No matter the cost.

The Happiest Girl in the World explores the dark history behind an athlete who stands on the world stage, biting gold. It's about the silence required of the exceptional, a tarnished friendship, and the sacrifices a parent will make for a child, even as a family is torn apart. It’s about the price of greatness.

Review: Like the author of this novel, I love watching gymnastics, especially at the Olympics. I was even lucky enough to see it in person in 2012 in London. I also did gymnastics until I was 12 even though I was only ok. I had a coach that told us not to wear underwear under our (light-colored) leotards and who, it was rumored, slept with the older gymnasts. Why did no one say anything?! Why did no one protect those girls?! It haunts me to this day. The only thing that helps is that the gym eventually shut down and he no longer coached. This novel touches on these issues and so much more.

Although this is a novel, so many real people and events are included that it feels like you are reading a narrative nonfiction. Sera Wheeler, her friend Lucy, and their families are fiction, but they live in a real world of dedication, abuse, talent, and drive that compels the reader to turn the page to find out what happens next. Having Sera tell the story in the first person made me feel like I knew these characters, that I was invested in the events and that is super effective. Having Sera's mom narrate the occasional chapter is also good as it gives the parent perspective and how the life of an elite athlete affects their family.

This is the first novel that I've read that incorporates the pandemic (think Tokyo Olympics).

If you have any interest in gymnastics, what it's like to sacrifice everything for a sport, or just want to read an interesting book, this one is for you.

Challenges for which this counts:
  • Literary Escapes--Qatar

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