Fun fact about me: sports are super not my thing. The only time I ever watch them is during the Olympics, because I can handle sports-watching about once every two years. Generally, I’m like “Oh, look, he kicked the ball. Clearly, that merits applause.” For all my lack of spirit about sports though, I have an odd attraction to YA novels about less popular sports. Cricket or curling? I would be all over that. I just finished Being Sloane Jacobs with ice hockey and figure skating, and now Letters to Nowhere with gymnastics. Based on the title, I really didn’t know what to make of Letters to Nowhere (frankly I was petrified of some sort of The Lake House scenario), but Cross’ contemporary novel is a sweet story about dealing with grief, building family where you find it, and, of course, gymnastics.
On the rare occasions I do voluntarily and with purpose sit down to watch sports, gymnastics is probably my favorite, particularly women’s gymnastics (how boring and torturous is watching routines on the rings?). Karen is in training as an elite gymnast, which means she practices for HOURS every day. When she’s not practicing, she’s completing high school online, and doing so in three years too. There’s a whole lot of gymnastics stuff in Letters to Nowhere and, though I’m not too familiar with the terminology, I never felt out of my element and I loved learning about the sport. The dynamics between Karen and her teammates are great, capturing both the competitiveness and the support the girls give one another.
Family and gymnastics are the main focuses of the novel. Right before the novel opens, both Karen’s parents died in a car accident. Her grieving has resulted in panic attacks, nightmares, and her coach, Bentley, being declared her legal guardian. The grief actually has one other side effect: increased motivation for her gymnastics. From what I can gather, Karen was always motivated, but she really throws herself into developing as a gymnast in the wake of her parents’ death, if only to keep her mind and body occupied.
Before her parents died, they’d done the parent thing and forced Karen to agree to the safe plan for the future: a college scholarship for gymnastics. Now, with them gone, she’s trying to decide whether she should accept the full ride or follow her dreams to the possibility of competing on an international level. Her success in gymnastics and grief about her parents are all twined together in a knot she has to work through in her own head.
The romance really shined for me in Letters to Nowhere as well. Karen and Bentley’s son Jordan develop an attachment. It’s sort of a slow burn, starting as tentative friends, then a tentative relationship and building to more serious feelings. My favorite thing about them is how silly and honest they are with one another. They go shopping for tampons together, make jokes about sex, and discuss embarrassing things openly (like which boob is larger than the other and how long sex really lasts). I also like that this sounds like a really melodramatic romantic set up, but it’s not treated that way at all. Jordan and Karen are actually really good for one another. The way that Karen’s introduction to the Bentley family helps Jordan and his father deal with their problems is also quite touching.
What Left Me Wanting More:
By and large, Letters to Nowhere is well edited. I noted a couple of grammatical issues (just like I do in finished copies of traditionally published books), but they weren’t all over the place. The one aspect of the novel that didn’t work for me were actually the letters that give the book its title. Karen writes these letters to her deceased parents, and they’re symbolic of her emotional state and it’s all a big metaphor. However, I think the metaphor would have worked without the letters, which tended to be a bit redundant as she told them about her life. In addition, Karen’s voice in the letters is much younger than in the rest of the first person narrative. However, the letters she wrote to other people (Jordan, Bentley, her gymnastics teammates) were cute and funny. I can see where the letters are an interesting frame concept, but they didn’t really work for me.
The Final Verdict:
Put into gymnastics terms, Letters to Nowhere started a bit wobbly and almost fell of the beam, but by the end the routine flowed smoothly and Cross stuck the landing. I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy this one quite so much, but I love finding contemporary novels that are about more than just romance, have nice witty banter, and a non-standard romance.