Time flies by incompetence, never waiting for excellence to catch up.
Tracy O’Neill’s debut novel, The Hopeful, is a literary deep-dive into the ravaging effects of a teen’s pursuit of perfection as a competitive figure skater. Even the cover bodes a metaphor that illustrates just how much the elite bend over backwards in the pursuit of excellence—a silhouette of a figure skater in a catch-foot spin, contorted backwards but still upright while ferociously balancing on a quarter-inch blade.
Among the elite vying for an Olympic gold medal is a rising phenom named Ali who hasn’t been Olympic “hopeful” since sustaining a back injury. After falling out of practice and gaining twenty pounds, the compulsion to get back into the race leads her to an inevitable fall from grace and a crash landing in the psyche ward.
Ali’s narration is a cross between Susanna Kaysen and Holden Caulfield—beautiful, observant, and articulate, but we are suspicious of the unreliable nature. Discussions with her shrink lack quotations. Additionally, the fragmented leap in and out of present and past tense, the non-linear disjointed narratives make for one disorienting read, and we are left questioning the accuracy in Ali’s interpretation and translation of the facts. Most often, this works in the story’s favor, as it illustrates how lost the narrator is in her own obsession, her disassociation from reality, and her rationalization for her desperate measures.
Ali is uncannily selfish and views the world through egocentric tunnel vision. Although she sees the impact her skating has on her parents’ marriage and her mother and father’s mental health, she responds indifferently, popping amphetamine pills, and blackmailing her mother. She views the world solely through her own pursuits. The people around her are similarly myopic. Her cousins are alcoholics or pregnant college-drop outs, her dad’s popping pills, her mother’s a bored housewife. It’s no wonder Ali retreats into herself and her obsession with skating.
In Ali, O’Neill presents the reader with an impressionable young woman who’s been ravaged of her adolescence, self-denied of biological maturation, and suffers from disordered eating and self-mutilation. While most teenage girls fret about the newest fashion or their school crush, Ali’s obsessed with the roadblocks hindering her skating potential: the onset of puberty and her family’s inability to afford more ice time. At times, her behaviors appear like silent cries for help, in them, a longing for a normal set of routines and living out her adolescence, but she doesn’t know how to part with her obsession.
Throughout the novel, I felt an inexplicable desire for more from the secondary characters. Each seemed to lack substance and depth, although, this may be a literary technique O’Neill used to further illustrate Ali’s narrative bias. Anything not contributing to her pursuit of gold is painted as unimportant, dull, and drab. The only fascinating secondary character is Ali’s biological mom, who is summed up as a career-driven chef that blatantly admits her life’s work was more important than being a mother, hence her reasoning for giving up Ali for adoption. Much more could have been developed and examined in this relationship, or the lack thereof, as both women share similar obsessions with their craft, although ironic clashes. What brings a Michelin star chef’s work to life is precisely what Ali views with unhealthy disgust, slashing her calorie count to 500 a day and popping amphetamines to maintain the focus and energy.
The un-quotation-ed dialogue between Ali and her doctor also waned at times, and throughout much of it, I questioned the believability of Ali’s stiff and pseudo-intellectual responses. There is no way we can forget how she is only seventeen and she’s grown up isolated, and spent most of her impressionable educational years ducking out of classes and dodging her tutor.
Did you worry about how you’d pay back Lucy?
I figured I’d find a way because I had to, as though the cause of the problem presupposed its solution. I had fate on my side. I was a teenage Caesar.
And from whence did this belief derive?
From coincidence, from wanting it to be true, from not wanting it to not be true.
Or perhaps from the amphetamines?
Why does it have to be the drugs that made me think what I thought and not myself who thought what I thought? I ask. There is so little I have left. Why can’t even my faith be my own?
In the end, Ali recognizes the toll her skating career, or the lack thereof, has taken on her body and mind, and how the pursuit of the gold medal chiseled away her parents’ well-being and put a stake in their marriage, but she doesn’t know how to move forward or what kind of life she’ll have to pursue after the psyche ward.
We put all of ourselves into my dream, and when it was over, I left us with nothing.
The Hopeful delves into the psychology and the irreversible effects competitive figure skating has on personal identity. An exposé that reads like an extended chapter from Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, Tracy O’Neill has an interesting debut novel on her hands written with an original literary grace all her own.