Following in the footsteps of The Michigan Daily Arts’ Music Talks, The Michigan Daily Arts section presents Arts Talks, a series where Daily Arts Writers gather to discuss their opinions on and reactions to the latest and major releases in the Arts world.
In this segment of Arts Talks, three Daily Arts Writers well-versed in the Taylor Jenkins Reid Universe review TJR’s recent publication, “Carrie Soto is Back,” discuss her authorship and deliberate over her other mainstream work.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Lillian Pearce, Managing Arts Editor: I, like many Taylor Jenkins Reid (TJR) fans, came to “Carrie Soto is Back” with high expectations. She’s the bestselling author of eight novels, and “Carrie Soto is Back” follows the particularly renowned “Malibu Rising”, “Daisy Jones & The Six” and “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.” All of these books became popular on BookTok, and for good reason — they’re entertaining, easy to read and fun. Though all of her books engage in the same fictional universe, there are a lot of parallels to and influence from reality; I think that’s partly why they’re so easy to eat up.
Ava Seaman, Daily Arts Writer: Yeah! When I first read the synopsis of “Carrie Soto is Back,” I immediately thought of Serena Williams. Like Williams, Carrie Soto is a tennis player who’s been playing since a very young age under the direction of her father (and ex-professional tennis player), Javier. Carrie eventually becomes the greatest player of all time, earning the record for most Grand Slam titles before she retires. It’s this record that becomes her claim to fame and functions as the primary source of conflict in the book; the novel is about Carrie’s comeback and how she trains and relearns tennis in this new age of the sport. Even though it’s only been six years since she retired, the game has changed, and the players have improved.
This is a sports fiction novel, which is incredibly different from TJR’s previous works that have focused on other distinct eras (’70s music scene, ’50s Hollywood, etc). It could be off-putting to some people, but I think TJR explains tennis really well. The thing about sports fiction is that it’s also so fun to read; it’s exciting and engaging because you can’t help but wonder what’s going to happen next. The story itself is very fast-paced and keeps you on the edge of your seat.
LP: The first 20% of the book focuses on how Carrie started playing tennis with her father, who was a famous player in Argentina known as “The Jaguar.” There’s a brief description of his move to the United States, where he works as a trainer and meets Carrie’s mother, who ends up dying when Carrie is very young. Javier’s grief is evident in how he pours himself and all that he knows into his daughter. From the moment Carrie first picks up a racket, he claims that she’ll be the greatest player of all time. “Carrie Soto is Back” is a story about a father and daughter as much as it is about tennis.
AS: Her relationship with her father is definitely as complicated as it is interesting. I think the reason for that is the lack of a relationship with her mother — the lack of motherly affection and warmth that fathers typically aren’t expected to have (though they can obviously still provide it). Javier makes up for this absence with his affection on and off the tennis court; their relationship is so compelling because it’s not what we typically see in fictional father-daughter duos.
LP: Another compelling aspect of “Carrie Soto” is that we, as readers of TJR’s previous works, came to it with preconceived notions of who Carrie Soto is.
AS: Carrie Soto makes an appearance in “Malibu Rising” when she cheats with the protagonist’s husband, another tennis player. We therefore already have this idea that Carrie is a very cold, icy woman, who knowingly had an affair with a married man; the idea that she’s not a likable person sets the tone for “Carrie Soto is Back,” and for our perception of Carrie herself in particular.
LP: I don’t think TJR set out to make us like Carrie Soto; the bias she established in “Malibu Rising” was purposeful and is taken in stride. Reading the book, you’re constantly reminded that Carrie Soto is in fact a very mean person. She’s terrible to other players and unnecessarily rude to people in general. This characterization was apparent when she was very young, though Carrie seemed to undergo a transition from forthright to downright mean as she moves up in the tennis world.
Though I understood why people didn’t like her — even I as a reader didn’t like her — I was completely invested in her and her career. I was constantly amused by her comments and thoughts as much as I was surprised by them.
AS: She’s even referred to as “The Battle Axe” by sports commentators, journalists and other players throughout the book.
One point in the book that stands out is when a news reporter, thinking they were off-air, calls Carrie Soto a bitch.
LP: And that part is shocking, even though we are all aware of her icy disposition.
AS: I think it’s TJR’s way of commenting on the extreme expectations placed on women in sports. In the book, Carrie herself complains about how she’s expected to be courteous, downplay her own talent and not take credit for her wins.
LP: And on top of these unfair expectations, Carrie faces her own private struggles with vulnerability and sensitivity. She was trained not to show emotions on the court by her father but has also learned to control her emotional reactions because of how they are critiqued by sports commentators and journalists.
So you do end up empathizing with her in spite of her sometimes crass behavior. The game is all she has, and the world of tennis isn’t always an uplifting one to live in. She didn’t have any friends growing up, as she dropped out of school to play tennis and devoted all of her free time to training. Since it was always just her and her father, she didn’t know how to act around people, especially men, which goes back to her struggles with emotional vulnerability.
AS: She doesn’t know how to interact with men, but she doesn’t know how to interact with women either. The only interactions she has with other women are beating them on the tennis court.
LP: Speaking of, I’m curious what you think about how TJR interacts with or writes about feminism in this book.
AS: I would not describe Carrie Soto as a feminist, but there are feminist undertones to this novel. Nicki Chan, the woman who breaks Carrie’s record for most Grand Slam titles, is the one who calls out Carrie for her inability to recognize Nicki as a worthy opponent.
She says, “I’m the first Asian woman to ever win Wimbledon. The first woman like me to do almost any of the things I’ve done in tennis — hitting these records. Because we both know tennis doesn’t make it easy for those of us who aren’t blonde and blue-eyed.”
LP: Carrie was always ready to clap back at the men critiquing her for her status as a woman in sports, but it took another woman in the sport to make her realize, or even acknowledge, that there are other women in tennis facing the same challenges, if not more, that she was.
That moment was the peak of the book; up until then, we were watching Carrie relentlessly work toward taking back her title, without ever stopping to consider who she’s taking it from. Nicki, who is described as a darker-skinned Asian lesbian woman, has worked extremely hard to achieve her spot in the tennis world and has faced bigger challenges than Carrie in doing so.
Isabella Kassa, Daily Arts Writer: I’m glad you brought this up because it relates to some of the discourse I’ve seen on Twitter and TikTok about how TJR frequently writes women of Color protagonists, though she herself is not. What does that mean for the book and for representation?
LP: I was wondering about this too. I googled whether TJR herself is Latina, because I noticed that TJR’s physical and personality descriptions of Carrie Soto are very similar to those of Evelyn Hugo, the protagonist of “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo”: They’re both Latina women who are described as having fairer skin and who share a very ambitious and sort of cutthroat mentality.
I found the article “Writing Nuanced Queer Protagonists: A Q&A with Taylor Jenkins Reid, Writer of ‘The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo,’” where Reid answers questions concerning her writing about marginalized groups, though she is a cisgender straight white woman.
In the interview, she says, “We have a problem, in publishing and entertainment, of not centering minority voices. The solution to that problem is to bolster and support minority writers. There is no replacement or substitution for the incredibly important and, quite frankly, exciting work of reading, celebrating and promoting minority writers … I chose to center my story on women who are underrepresented. I’m able to do that and still be considered mainstream because of my previous work. Which means I’m able to put a queer story in the mainstream and put it in front of people who might not otherwise read one. I am in a unique position to be able to do that and so I chose to do it.”
IK: Writing stories that are not hers takes away from those marginalized voices, and are less authentic than representations of identities written by people who hold them; at the same time, if she doesn’t make an effort to center marginalized groups, then it’s just another story about a white girl.
LP: Right. And at this point, everyone has either heard of TJR or at least is aware of her popular works like “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.” It’s true that she is mainstream, and that her readership is only growing, especially because of social media like BookTok.
I’m so interested to hear from people who pick up “Carrie Soto is Back” as their first TJR work, given the criticism and the fact that it is so different from her popular works. “Daisy Jones & The Six” is still my favorite book of hers, though I did really enjoy the fast pacing and intensity of “Carrie Soto is Back.” It also had one of the best endings, in my opinion, out of all of her work that I’ve read. Without spoiling too much of it, Carrie ends up becoming a coach, which wraps up her storyline really well.
AS: The end was a great nod to her father’s memory, who passes away before her final match. Everything came together in the end.