Lucy Adler, the seventeen-year-old protagonist of Dana Czapnik’s spellbinding debut novel, is constantly negotiating what it means to be a female athlete and intellectual in the image-obsessed Manhattan of the early nineties. Czapnik brilliantly manages to portray Lucy as at once a callow teenager hungry for a constant adrenaline rush, and a much wiser adult capable of observing her shortcomings from a distance. The duality of Lucy’s psyche largely depends on Lucy’s secret love for Percy Abney, her best friend since childhood. Although on the surface Percy represents everything that Lucy is against — extreme wealth, male power, and the illusion of perfection — she still wants desperately to be affirmed by him.
As a double-edged object of desire, Percy is much like The Falconer statue in Central Park that Lucy struggles to incorporate into her self-understanding. On the one hand, the statue of “a young boy in tights, leg muscles blazing, releasing a bird” captures the elusive high Lucy gets every time she nails a jump shot. On the other, it is a symbol of all that lay just out of reach; statues like The Falconer, Lucy thinks, are singularly made of boys, while “statues of girls are always doing something feminine or unfun, like lounging half-naked by a spring, gently dipping elegant fingertips in the water.… Why can’t girls with muscular legs in leggings stand on a hilltop and release the bird?”
As the narrative progresses, Lucy is forced to come to terms with the messiness of her female identity, and to accept that she will never be able to fit into the iconic mold both Percy and The Falconer embody. The more she reckons with this truth, the more willing she is to spend time in solitude, absorbing the fragmented life of New York City as a mirror for her own existence. As rapid gentrification and consumerism increasingly divide Manhattan from its more humble roots, Lucy makes peace with her own origins as the daughter of lower-middle class hippies with little connection to her part-Jewish heritage.
Lucy’s time alone becomes a crucial space for her to be more present in her body, more acutely attuned sounds of rhythms of the city. Taking this presence of mind with her onto the court independently from her need for Percy’s approval, she begins to let go of the idea of basketball as a means for realizing her freedom as a fixed and measurable thing. By letting herself be in the moment of the practice, she learns to surrender to larger, unknowable truths about life — particularly the idea that love is not something that can be earned or achieved, but rather something that is an ever-shifting state, as transient as the passage of time. In relinquishing unattainable ideals, Lucy learns to immerse herself in the invisible rush of “ball on pavement. Silence. Air. Thwip. Ball on pavement. Ball on pavement. Feet on pavement. Ball on pavement. Silence. Air. Thwip. Again.” Here, Lucy finds room to observe the miracle of simply being—the gift of existing moment by moment for no one but herself.
Jaclyn Gilbert earned her B.A. at Yale and her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Tin House, Lit Hub, Long Reads, Post Road Magazine, and elsewhere. Late Air her first novel, released from Little A last November.