I am not what you would call an athlete. During the single season that I played soccer as a kindergartner, my position may have been “defender,” but my primary activities were picking flowers, twirling, and dancing with my legs together as if I were a mermaid. (If you ask me, the coaches were asking for it when they allowed our team name to be The Purple Mermaids. Obviously, on such a team, one must dance on the field and earn the title. The ball approaching my vicinity was a real bummer, drawing focus from my expert portrayal.) All in all, I enjoyed soccer, inasmuch as soccer to me meant dancing in a cute, shiny purple shirt and then getting a Cherry Shasta and an orange wedge afterwards. Sports were my thang!
Of course, eventually I learned the truth, and established my place solidly in the spectator category. It turns out there is not much demand for mermaid soccer players, as the lack of legs inhibits running. Thus, books that are heavy on sports and sports metaphors can be tiring for me. There were moments in reading this book, which is about a boy who joins an elite prep school rowing team, when the sportsiness was admittedly a bit much for a former mermaid. It just seemed like everyone spent a lot of time on the verge of throwing up. I don’t mean this figuratively at all. These high school rowers would push themselves so hard physically that they would barf, bleed, drool, sweat, and cry. All so that they could row their boat a little faster. Reading about such abuses, I adjusted my pillow and burrowed deeper into the sofa, deeply confused. Just…why?
What makes the book worth reading isn’t all the barfing and near-barfing that occurs. There are actually two parallel stories, one following young Rob during his year at Fenton School, and the other following adult Rob fifteen years later, as he makes his way back to the school for a reunion. Adult Rob is unmoored—his relationship has been broken by pain and loss, and the memories of his tumultuous year at Fenton that are dredged up by his returning there are not helping. But what exactly did happen at Fenton that was so traumatizing? Irwin creates some good momentum leading up to the final, inevitable yet still shocking, reveal. The ending is also satisfying, a bit open-ended but redemptive and sweet.
Bottom line: Read this book, and be cozy on the couch while you do. No need to exercise until you barf. Let the characters do the work.