What happens when a prospective Olympic gymnast has an injury during the Olympic Trials that ends up destroying her dreams of Olympic glory? In “Head Over Heels,” Hannah Orenstein creates a main character whose whole life had been dedicated to the goal of being an Olympic contender. Avery Abrams had worked for hours after school at the gym and then had been homeschooled so that she could devote even more time to training.
Her coach was Dimitri, a Russian famous for training Olympic winners. She and her best friend Jasmine had endured years of abuse under his tutelage. He weighed them constantly and called them names if they gained any weight or ate something that he didn’t approve of. He coached through cruelty and harsh treatment. They did what he asked unquestioningly, and they felt like failures if they couldn’t perform to his expectations.
When Avery suffered her injury, Dimitri didn’t talk to her. He didn’t check on her to see how she was. To Dimitri, Avery was gone, out of his life. And her bitterness at the loss of her dreams and life-long aspirations proved too bitter a pill to swallow. When Avery went to college, she had no drive and flunked out after way too many parties.
Avery has been living with her boyfriend in LA, a successful football player, and has indulged in her love of cooking. But when her boyfriend ends the relationship — in part due to Avery’s lack of ambition — Avery moves home to Massachusetts into her parents’ house and into her childhood bedroom. And that’s where we meet Avery, flying away from her aimless life in LA and back to her parents’ house. She feels as if she is a failure at everything: relationships, jobs, school, and life in general.
A call comes from Ryan, a former Olympic gymnast on whom Avery had had an adolescent crush, asking Avery to help coach a young woman who is an Olympic possibility. Avery jumps at the chance. Hallie is sixteen and has been working toward Olympic success for almost her whole life. In fact, Avery sees a lot of herself in Hallie, and Hallie is starstruck by Avery. Avery comes to realize that while she views herself as a failure because she wasn’t able to go to the Olympics, others see her differently.
The plot centers on Avery and her relationship with Ryan and how that develops. But there are also other important relationships in this story. Avery realizes that she will do a lot to ensure that Hallie has the kind of training and coaching that Avery would have loved — free from abuse and negativity. And Hallie is a lovely young girl whose ambition ensures that she doesn’t have to be pushed to work hard and train diligently. Avery also runs into her old friend Jasmine, who has married the abusive Dimitri. Orenstein spends time developing all these relationships.
Although Avery is in her mid-twenties, she grows up a lot over the course of the novel, which the author breaks up into months that are then broken up into chapters. So the story begins in October, 2019, and the Olympics take place in June, 2020. (Or they really would have if a certain pandemic hadn’t surprised us.) In October, then, we meet Avery at her nadir, going back home to live in the bedroom she grew up in. (Spoiler alert) By June, Avery has found her passion, she has earned the respect of those around her, she has regained lost friendships, and, just maybe, she has found true love.
Orenstein also touches on the gymnast sexual abuse scandal by the sports doctor who began abusing athletes when they were children, sometimes even when their mothers were in the room, unaware. Avery’s experience with an abusive coach is similar to the real accounts of gymnasts who claim that their coaches were abusive. Another fine touch is the inclusion of Avery’s self-loathing of her not-elite-gymnast body. She’s no longer a finely tuned set of muscles, and she thinks too much about her soft stomach and extra few pounds.
All in all, it’s a fascinating peek into the world of elite athletes and how they train and prepare for the Olympics. It’s also a touching tale of how one cannot allow failure to be a permanent life condition. New passions, giving to others, finding satisfaction in smaller jobs well done — all these are important, too. Another lesson Orenstein shares is that trust is important in almost any kind of relationship. Whether it’s friendship or romance, or even working with an Olympic-bound athlete, there must be trust for any relationship to work.
This review was first published on Bookreporter.com.