Book Review: Carrie Soto Is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Title: Carrie Soto Is Back
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: August 30, 2022
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In this powerful novel about the cost of greatness, a legendary athlete attempts a comeback when the world considers her past her prime—from the New York Times bestselling author of Malibu Rising.

Carrie Soto is fierce, and her determination to win at any cost has not made her popular. But by the time she retires from tennis, she is the best player the world has ever seen. She has shattered every record and claimed twenty Grand Slam titles. And if you ask Carrie, she is entitled to every one. She sacrificed nearly everything to become the best, with her father, Javier, as her coach. A former champion himself, Javier has trained her since the age of two.

But six years after her retirement, Carrie finds herself sitting in the stands of the 1994 US Open, watching her record be taken from her by a brutal, stunning player named Nicki Chan.

At thirty-seven years old, Carrie makes the monumental decision to come out of retirement and be coached by her father for one last year in an attempt to reclaim her record. Even if the sports media says that they never liked “the Battle-Axe” anyway. Even if her body doesn’t move as fast as it did. And even if it means swallowing her pride to train with a man she once almost opened her heart to: Bowe Huntley. Like her, he has something to prove before he gives up the game forever.

In spite of it all, Carrie Soto is back, for one epic final season. In this riveting and unforgettable novel, Taylor Jenkins Reid tells her most vulnerable, emotional story yet.

I’ve read all of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s books by now, have loved most, and at a minimum, have really liked even the ones that didn’t quite rise to 5-star levels for me. But I hesitated — a LOT — about reading Carrie Soto Is Back. A book about a tennis player? How could that possibly be relevant to me?

I should have had more faith! In the hands of Taylor Jenkins Reid, even a book on a subject I didn’t expect to care about managed to pull me in and hook me until the end.

Carrie Soto was born to be a tennis star. Daughter of a man who was himself a tennis phenomenon, she’s been on courts since she was a toddler. Under the coaching of her father Javier, Carrie’s entire existence has been focused on one thing only: being the best. Period.

The first section of the book is about Carrie’s rise to the top. From her childhood training sessions to the all-consuming process of going pro, to finally becoming the woman who set record after record by winning the most Grand Slam titles in history, Carrie is untouchable in her success. She also has earned the nickname of “The Battle-Axe” (and worse things) — she’s ruthless and unabashedly (some might say cruelly) competitive. She doesn’t pretend to be polite or nice. She wants to destroy her opponents on the court, and she does, tournament after tournament. She’s the most well-known woman athlete of her time… but no one actually likes her.

The story really heats up in the mid-90s, when Carrie, several years after retirement, sees her Grand Slam record broken by a younger player, Nicki Chan. Carrie feels as though her entire existence is being called into question. At the “old” age of 37, Carrie decides to win back her record. And despite exactly no one in the world of tennis thinking she can do it, Carrie and Javier set out to prove — one more time — what she’s capable of.

Carrie is a hard character to like, which is entirely intentional. She’s driven and focused — nothing but tennis and being the best matter to her. She has no use for flattery or friendship. She’s not here to make nice. She’s here to win. Yet as we spend time with Carrie, we get to see more of what drives her, and finally start to see the chinks in her armor give way, just a tiny bit, as she admits to herself that she does actually need people in her life.

I’ll admit that I had a hard time with parts of this book. I mean, I really have no experience with tennis, so reading shot-by-shot descriptions of each match felt a little much at times. Still, once I got into the rhythm of the book, I did find myself absorbed by Carrie and Javier’s meticulousness in their strategy and gameplay. If you’d asked me before I read Carrie Soto Is Back, I’d have said that tennis is just two people hitting a ball back and forth until one misses. But now, I have a much greater appreciation for the minutiae of shot planning and match strategy, and have a little bit more understanding of the complexity of what actually happens on the court.

As for the emotional impact, it’s slow to hit, but eventually, I felt very invested in Carrie’s comeback, especially as we spend so much time on her inner world and get to see how it aligns (or doesn’t) with what the rest of the world sees. Carrie is difficult and prickly, but there’s an inner core that a few people manage to reach, and when we see Carrie’s connection with certain people, it’s quite lovely.

As a book set in the world of professional tennis in the 80s and 90s, there are depictions of the casual sexism of the time that are just astonishing. Not that our own time is free of this, but we have definitely come a long way. The cruelty of the sports commentators and media coverage, as shown through transcripts throughout the book, is just infuriating — and made me root for Carrie all the more.

Overall, I’m glad that I finally picked up Carrie Soto Is Back. It’s a fast, engrossing read about an unusual, powerful woman. Despite my initial hesitation, this book is a winner.

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