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Book Review: Carrie Soto Is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Book Review: Carrie Soto Is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid

If Carrie Soto is Back was a song then without a question it would be Taylor Swift’s ‘The Man’ – and just like Taylor Swift’s ear worm, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s latest novel is an eye-opening and powerful exploration of a woman’s success, triumphs and failures when it feels like everyone is judging your every move and has an opinion to share. In Carrie Soto is Back, Reid takes this idea and channels it into another fictional history, following the stories of Evelyn Hugo, Daisy Jones and Nina Riva with that of world tennis champion Carrie Soto, a woman who sets out to reclaim her record as the woman with the most Grand Slam titles in history despite the widespread belief that she’s too old, past her prime, and inevitably set for failure.

After a dazzling tennis career throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Carrie Soto has retired from professional tennis. Six years later, however, she finds herself sitting in the stands at the 1994 US Open and watching as her record is taken from her by tennis’ new superstar Nicki Chan. Unwilling to let all of her hard work and success be forgotten about, Carrie makes the decision to come out of retirement and be coached by her father Javier once again in a bid to win another Grand Slam title.

At the age of 37, Carrie’s body isn’t as fast as it used to be and the public and the sports media are quick to share their doubts that the one-time ruthless tennis player they once dubbed the ‘Battle-Axe’ will ever be able to recapture her earlier success. Nevertheless, Carrie will stop at nothing to reclaim her record, even if it means training with Bowe Huntley, a man she once almost opened her heart to and another tennis player who also has something to prove before he gives up the game forever. Despite all the odds stacked against her, Carrie Soto is back for one final season as she sets out to prove once and for all that she is the best.

‘I want to fucking win, Carrie. I want to hear the crowd screaming my name. I want to know that for one moment, I am the best in the world. One last time.’

I can’t help but smile. ‘You are taking the words right out of my mouth.’”

That Carrie Soto is Back is a book about tennis is undeniable, but you definitely do not have to be a tennis fan to enjoy it. Instead, the tennis season serves as a backdrop to a story about family, love, fame and one woman’s drive and ambition to succeed – because, of course, this is a novel about Carrie Soto first and foremost. In that respect, Carrie Soto is Back is a lot more insular than some of Reid’s latest works; Evelyn Hugo and Daisy Jones both cover the stories of a lot of different people and places through the decades, while Malibu Rising is very much a novel that focuses on family and branches off to tell the story of each Riva sibling, their mother and their upbringing.

Carrie Soto, meanwhile, focuses almost exclusively on Carrie herself at one particular moment in time, with a quick overview of her father’s marriage, her birth and early childhood and her entire tennis career ultimately giving way to focus on the 1994-95 tennis season, when Carrie has so much to prove. For her entire career, Carrie has been told that she’s too much – she’s too ruthless on the tennis courts, too mean to be liked by the public or her fellow tennis players, too confident in her own greatness and too arrogant when she wins. Now she’s told she’s too old to win any more games too. It doesn’t take long, however, for Reid to peel back every single one of these walls that have been built up around Carrie and her legacy on the tennis courts and show readers that Carrie is actually someone who is much more vulnerable than she seems.

Carrie is well aware of the huge risk she is taking in coming out of retirement to reclaim her titles, putting her reputation, endorsements and relative post-fame anonymity on the line too. It is through taking that risk that Carrie can fight to reclaim her professional success, but also her relationship with her father and with tennis more generally, as well as rediscovering love, respect and passion too. Once again Reid proves that she has an innate understanding of character and a craftsmanship that’s so brilliant and subtle that it really does feel like Carrie Soto is a real person that you root for and admire – an especially commendable feat given our first introduction to Carrie in Malibu Rising as an intense and almost-caricatured Other Woman side character.

Beyond Carrie’s individual journey, however, Reid also brilliantly shines a light on a woman’s position within the media and within society in general. The difference we see between Carrie’s internal motivations and the meanings ascribed to them by others is staggering, with the multimedia excerpts included showing that what Carrie processes as ambition, pride and relief when she wins and pushes her body to its limits, are interpreted as arrogance and overconfidence. Carrie rightly points out that men would never be subjected to the same criticisms, but that dissonance doesn’t stop with Carrie either; female journalists are the sole voices in praising Carrie for what she’s doing for female sports, while a former women’s professional tennis player is constantly interrupted, dismissed and talked over by her male co-star throughout the season too.

Altogether, it makes for a gripping and engaging read about a woman persevering against all odds, recognising your limits and knowing when to push back. As well as a complex and nuanced character study, Carrie Soto is Back offers its readers a warm-hearted story of the love between a father and a daughter, as well a tender journey of learning how to love yourself and open up to others too. Between the action-packed tennis matches, Carrie’s emotional reckoning and the wider commentary of women having to continuously fight for recognition in male-dominated fields, Taylor Jenkins Reid has crafted another compelling novel that effortlessly draws in readers and will no doubt keep them thinking about Carrie Soto long after they turn the final page.


Carrie Soto Is Back is published by Hutchinson Heinemann on 30 August 2022

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