Book Review for “Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women’s Olympic Team” by Elise Hooper.
Summary: This biographical, historical fiction novel portrays the story of three women athletes who “join with others to defy society’s expectations of what women can achieve. As tensions bring the United States and Europe closer and closer to the brink of war, Betty, Louise, and Helen must fight for the chance to compete as the fastest women in the world amidst the pomp and pageantry of the Nazi-sponsored 1936 Olympics in Berlin.”
When I asked for the ARC of this novel, I had no idea that some of the elements included would be so relevant to today’s political and social turmoil, but it does! These elements are of course the systemic racism and misogyny that have plagued the world from time immemorial. In this novel you’ll see how the misogynistic and racist attitudes within the world of athletics actually began to break down between the two world wars, due in part to brave women like these, who fought to compete in what was then called “track and field” at the Olympics. Of course, racism and misogyny still exist today. But while the #MeToo movement went global in 2017, over the past several weeks, the #BlackLivesMatter movement (that actually began in 2013) has now gained a similar type of world-wide recognition that it deserves. I’m sure Hooper had no idea that her novel might highlight something so timely, and I’d like to note that while she is most definitely white, I didn’t see any indication of cultural appropriation here, and I believe she approached the subject of racism (and for that matter, antisemitism) with respect.
With that out of the way, let’s get to the heart of this review – my opinion of this novel. This is the first novel by Hooper I’ve read, and I’m a bit surprised that I hadn’t read anything by her before now. Mind you, I did try to get an ARC of her debut novel, but to no avail. Now that I’ve rectified this oversight, I can see that Hooper has a very easy writing style that combines just the right mixture of slightly poetic descriptions with straightforward prose and dialog. Hooper also seems to have a knack for knowing when to be precise, and when to be suggestive. For example, rather than telling us everything that happens physically during a crucial race, we sometimes get these dreamlike interludes where we are practically inside the woman’s feelings and emotions, as well as inside her body. However, when she describes the scene where some of the runners meet a very important person (sorry, no spoilers as to whom), we get details of gestures, minutiae of the other people there, in addition to specifics about the drinks they’re handed, and almost every piece of furniture in the room where the meeting takes place. In other words, Hooper seems to know just when to be focused and accurate, and just when to be lyrical and evocative.
Hooper also brings this dichotomy of mixing the general with the explicit with her main characters. This is accomplished by Hooper using the third person voice, so that we can witness both the external and internal elements of these characters. This allowed for some very nicely rounded main characters, who gain the reader’s sympathy quite quickly and easily. I believe that other readers will also be rooting for these women’s victories on the track, just as I was (even if we already know their histories, that include their athletic disappointments).
Although the three main characters – Louise, Betty, and Helen – undoubtedly take the main stage here, I should mention that there is also a very large cast of prominent, but minor, characters as well. While I enjoyed most of them (the likeable ones, at least) I think that the biggest drawback of this novel is that sometimes these lesser personalities grabbed just a touch too much focus, and there were a couple of times where I got a bit confused. I can understand why Hooper kept them in the story, since a few of them are historical figures, but I wonder if she couldn’t have cut down on some of the scenes where they appeared. Thankfully, this didn’t detract too much from the overall story, and once I had gotten past those passages, things came back together again.
With all the controversies regarding race and gender across world right now, I’m hoping that this book doesn’t get trashed because these same issues appear in a book written by a straight white woman. I believe that Hooper dealt with these issues very respectfully, and with an eye towards history, without judgement, and I feel she did her best to try to understand how these women must have felt, at the time. Of course, I may be totally wrong about that, since I only have personal experience of antisemitism, and when that came up in the book, I was not at all offended. I definitely enjoyed this book, and I really want to read more of Hooper’s work. I think that all things considered, I can easily recommend it and believe it deserves a healthy four and a half stars out of five.
William Morrow – Harper Collins will release “Fast Girls: A Novel of the 1936 Women’s Olympic Team” by Elise Hooper on July 7, 2020. This book is (or will be) available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US (eBooks and audiobooks), the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org (to support independent bookshops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic) or an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.
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