Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Historical Fiction
Content warnings: ageism, alcohol abuse, cancer (past, off-page), cheating, death of a loved one, misogyny, terminal illness
Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: an unputdownable redemption story and unlikeable yet inspiring girlbosses
We live in a world where exceptional women have to sit around waiting for mediocre men.
Anyone who has been within a six-mile radius of bookish social media will know that Taylor Jenkins Reid is lauded for her character stories – sweeping tales about actresses, musicians, models and now athletes. Most notably, the novel that catapulted her into the spotlight, The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, is a beautiful celebration of queer love, WOC excellence and girlbossery.
And yet, I found her past two novels, Daisy Jones & The Six and Malibu Rising, though just as gripping (I finished the latter in roughly two days), to be disappointments in comparison. Gone was the nuance of Evelyn Hugo and its intersectional commentary. Here were these soap opera dramas about white people and their attempts to navigate their affairs of the heart or messy family issues. As a person of colour, I found that these stories ultimately kept me at an arm’s length since it felt like all their problems were so petty and trivial, built on the foundations of privilege.
Now, I am not the fun police. I did enjoy Daisy Jones and Malibu Rising for all the juicy theatrics. There is something so engrossing about TJR’s writing, and a story doesn’t have to be relatable to be enjoyable. Who doesn’t love a celebrity drama moment? But at the same time, I missed the depth of Evelyn Hugo – its exploration of race, gender, sexuality and how these marginalizations underpin the characters’ struggles or perception of the world. When I was let down by Daisy Jones and Malibu Rising, it made me wonder if The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo was simply a one-off.
Enter Carrie Soto Is Back.
Carrie Soto Is Back’s eponymous protagonist first makes a cameo in Malibu Rising, and it’s not in a very favourable light; Carrie Soto is introduced as the woman who had an affair with the husband of Malibu Rising’s main character, Nina Riva. But now Carrie has her own book with her own story to tell. A legendary tennis player, Carrie broke numerous records in her career, including winning 20 Grand Slam titles. Yet it all comes crashing down in 1994, when Nicki Chan wins the US Open and takes Carrie’s record from her. Not one to go down without a fight, she decides to come out of retirement at the age of 37 to try and reclaim it.
Ines Dell’oro, a volleyer who had been around for a few years, put her hand on Suze’s shoulder. / “Don’t waste your breath. The Battle Axe doesn’t talk to us,” she said. “We are beneath her.” [ . . . ] I looked at Ines. “I am ranked number two. And you are ranked—what? Maybe thirty? So in this case, yes, you are beneath me.”
From the get-go, it’s obvious that Carrie Soto is an unlikeable character. She’s cold hearted, insensitive, often wounding others with her sharp tongue. She knows she’s talented and doesn’t need others to tell her, nor does she care whose feelings she hurts climbing to the top. And yet, I found myself rooting for her from the first page. Carrie’s ‘all or nothing’ mentality and her obsession with being the best resonated deeply with the burned out gifted kid within me. She may be navigating the sporting world and I the academic one, but the resentment towards failure and the intense perfectionism that prohibits even the slightest mistake is something that we both have in common. It may be frustrating to read about Carrie being so pigheaded about the prospect of losing, but I understood where she was coming from – having known only success in a particular field all your life and suddenly not having it, even in the slightest increment, can be really crushing. I empathised with Carrie’s struggle, and it made me root for her even more.
In a lot of media, the catty ‘mean girl’ trope is used to no end. Girls who are seemingly flawless, who take pleasure in tearing down other girls for the sake of it. Girls we love to hate. But in addition to being products of plain misogyny, they often lack depth or substance. From the outside looking in, Carrie Soto acts like a mean girl with her vitriolic words and indifference to others. Yet, while this may appear to be the case, it’s clear as we spend more time with Carrie that these behaviours are a defence mechanism. She has a sharp tongue because it’s the only way she can survive in an environment that isn’t particularly kind to women, especially when they aren’t young or blonde-haired and blue-eyed. She has to be determined, because if she won’t back herself, who will?
It’s also evident that Carrie pushes people away because she’s afraid of being hurt. Her mother died when she was young, and as her stardom increases, she becomes fodder for numerous tabloids and gossip columns. The only exception to this rule is her father, Javier Soto, a successful tennis player back on his home soil of Argentina, who now serves as Carrie’s coach. The bond between father and daughter is really fascinating to read as personal and professional ambitions intertwine and the lines between father and coach blur. But it’s also touching. Javier Soto is what helps to humanise Carrie. She clearly cares about him, and it’s not only proof that her heart isn’t as ice cold as it is made out to be, but also that there is something in her life that she values just as much as tennis.
My heart hurts when you hurt because you are my heart.
The other principal character besides Carrie and her father is Bowe Huntley, a fellow tennis player who shares some history with Carrie and has a reputation for on-court tantrums à la John McEnroe and Boris Becker. He serves as her love interest, but their potential relationship is constantly held back by his troubled past and her fear of vulnerability. Throughout the novel, they’re constantly dancing around each other, in a constant push and pull that feels refreshing in a world full of instalove book romances. Carrie and Bowe learn to become friends first before taking any further steps, and it’s oddly mature coming from two characters that can act extremely immature at times. Additionally, the relationship between Bowe and Carrie’s father was one of my favourite parts of Carrie Soto – seeing them come to genuinely care about each other was unexpected yet incredibly heart-warming.
As per every TJR novel, the plot is gripping, and I finished this book within the span of 24 hours. If tennis isn’t really your thing and you’re worried about how tennis-centric Carrie Soto is, fear not. The last time I picked up a tennis racquet of my own volition was in Year 3, but I was still captivated by Carrie’s matches and training sessions. Reid writes about the game with such descriptive detail and sharpness that it feels like you’re simply watching a televised Grand Slam. Ultimately, tennis is merely the vehicle that she uses to explore greater themes of perseverance, identity and relationships.
People act like you can never forget your own name, but if you’re not paying attention, you can veer so incredibly far away from everything you know about yourself to the point where you stop recognizing what they call you.
Carrie Soto Is Back poses many questions. What happens when your best isn’t good enough? What happens after failure? Is anything possible if you set your mind to it, or do we need a reality check sometimes? All of the answers to these are made more complex when you filter them through Carrie’s lens as a Latina woman or the lens of her biggest rival, Nicki Chan, a queer Asian woman. It’s this intersectionality and deeper exploration of identity that, for me, elevates Carrie Soto above Reid’s past two novels and onto the same playing field as The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.
With all that said, this novel is also quintessentially TJR. It’s a feminist dive into a male-dominated sphere, looking at the world through the eyes of a woman who’s tired of having it dished out to her by the patriarchy. There are complex characters, authentic relationships and glamorous settings. And, like the last few books, there’s also a couple of nods to characters from Reid’s previous novels. The TJRCU (Taylor Jenkins Reid Cinematic Universe) is alive and thriving.
But Carrie Soto Is Back is also about a woman trying to redeem herself in spite of the dismissals thrown her way simply because she is a woman. An older woman. A woman of colour. And I love a good redemption story moment. There’s something so tantalising about seeing someone try to claw their way back into the light, back to the top. Can they make it, or are they destined to fail again? Will they succeed or lose sight of themselves along the way? It’s the need to find an answer to these questions that makes Carrie Soto so unputdownable and a pleasure to read.
Game, set, match. 5 stars.