Coming off the heels of the historic US Open where we saw tennis legend Serena Williams bid goodbye to the sport, Penguin Random House and its Ballantine Books imprint was in the throes of promoting Taylor Jenkins Reid’s new novel, Carrie Soto Is Back. The publisher even had a pop-up at Wimbledon over the summer.
The novel focuses on a retired tennis champion who sees her record about to be broken by a younger player, so she feels she must come back to defend her record. Book influencers expressed concern about these characters being women of color trying to defeat each other. Many of these influencers say it’s problematic that a White author pit a Latina title character against an Asian character.
“Carrie Soto Is Back is a story of a Latina tennis player written by a White woman, which we’ve been here before many times,” Tomes and Textiles book influencer Carmen Alvarez said in a reel published on Instagram and TikTok to her combined nearly 60,000 followers. “You’d be surprised to find out that Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Carrie Soto Is Back has more untranslated Spanish than any book I ever read, even by Latinx authors.”
White authors who center stories around Hispanic and Latine characters tend to get higher paychecks and more marketing dollars compared to Hispanic and Latine authors who write authentic stories about their communities and cultures, she adds. She likens the tennis novel to the American Dirt controversy in 2020 where Jeanine Cummins, who later identified as White Latina, wrote a immigration novel that performed well in sales despite the lack of immigration stories by Hispanic and Latine authors getting the same publishing attention.
Book influencers brought up the issue of Taylor giving voice to another Latina main character in her popular 2017 novel The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. This half-historical fiction novel follows a Latina actress, who passes as White by dying her hair blonde, as she becomes a Hollywood legend. At the end of her life, she plucks a biracial journalist, who is half-Black and half-White, to write her tell-all. It turns out Evelyn and her husband each carried their own queer love affairs in an agreement to not reveal their sexual orientation.
Though the well-paced book gained prominence and favorable reviews, the criticism started to surface since the author, who is White, created a secretly queer Latina main character, a biracial character, and other characters who are queer and non-White. Those allegations are resurfacing with the recent release of Carrie Soto Is Back, featuring another Latina main character.
BookTuber Jesse Morales-Small is the voice behind Bowties and Books and identifies as an “Afro-Chicano book nerd.” They created a video about not being excited about this book despite the major marketing push and voiced concerns about the racial dynamics in the novel.
“You came out of retirement because an Asian woman broke your record. You’re like, ‘I must come out and uproot my life.’ Bitch, just sit down and relax,” they said in a video from March.
“I’m worried about how the story might go,” they continue. “This narrative of this White woman coming out of retirement, so that she can reassert her record over an Asian woman, I don’t know…It’s just with the story being written by a White woman, it makes me feel weird.”
This is before readers realized Carolina “Carrie” Soto is Argentinian American and the opponent threatening her record is Nicki Chan, who is British Chinese. Carrie’s manager during the comeback is Gwen Davis, a Los Angeles-bred Black woman.
Another problem associated with mentioning women of color is White female authors tend to emphasize these characters’ beauty, which they do not do with their White female characters. Because White women are considered the standard gold of beauty and attraction, it becomes a problem when the author brings up the issue when describing a character of color.
Here’s an example of when we’re introduced to Gwen, again a Black woman who is living in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots/Uprising and currently dealing with the racially tense O.J. Simpson murder trial as the city is reeling from the January 1994 Northridge earthquake. These impactful events are not referenced except a small O.J. trial mention in a fake media report, which is a huge oversight in relation to the characters with LA roots. Carrie’s comeback and perception of women are all that matters:
“I turn toward Gwen as she sits down on the sofa next to me. She’s in her late fifties, dressed in a red pantsuit and mules. Sometimes I wonder if she’s in the wrong field; she’s too striking, too glamorous to be the one behind the scenes… Something about that Gwen doesn’t care what her assistant wears in the office while she, herself, looks like a runway model makes me like them both even more.”
So, Gwen is a Naomi Campbell-type because any other Black woman wouldn’t fit the narrative of a tough manager. At this racially turbulent time in Los Angeles, a native-born Black woman would have been impacted by these events to some degree, as well as a Latina like Carrie. They wouldn’t be so worried about their looks unless those looks were under a criminal attack.
Nicki, Carrie’s sworn enemy, is also said to be beautiful on more than one occasion. Here’s a scenario where Carrie meets Nicki’s eyes as they sit in the audience of a match before they spar in the French Open. All Carrie can think about is how Nicki looks:
“Her long, broad body is unmistakable. Her strong, muscular arms. Her wide shoulders. Her long black hair. Nobody ever talks about it much—which is telling—but Nicki Chan is gorgeous. Showstoppingly gorgeous. A round face with high cheekbones, full lips.
“Other women in tennis—blond women with big boobs and long legs—often get modeling contracts at age seventeen. They show up on the cover of men’s magazines within a year or so of hitting the court for the first time.
“But not thicker women, like me. Or dark-skinned women like Carla Perez or Suze Carter. Not women who are British Chinese, like Nicki, or downright scary in their intensity like her either. Not the women who aren’t skinny and white and smiling.”
When characters of color are central to a book, some type of struggle tied to racial and cultural identity has to come up because for people of color that’s everyday real life. So, not receiving an adequate background on Carrie Soto only that her father came from Argentina for tennis opportunities and her mother died young shows the lack of deeper understanding of representing an Argentinian American woman who becomes one of the top athletes in the world in the 1980s.
To Tomes and Textiles’ Carmen’s point, there is a lot of untranslated Spanish interweaved with English. This is to make sure the reader gets what’s going on without translating the Spanish. If you’re around enough nonnative English speakers like myself, they usually do not weave English with their native language so often, especially when talking to a family member, because that’s not natural. English will come up for words that are only in English, such as a brand name like Kleenex or Starbucks. So, the use of Spanish looks gimmicky.
Overall, the book is unfortunately a snooze. Authors put themselves in their characters’ shoes by doing extensive research, but in this case Carrie’s story is not entertaining enough. It takes place on another timeline, but tennis stars Gabriela Sabatini, who is Argentinian, and Mary Joe Fernández, who is Dominican, would be able to tell us eye-opening stories about competing in professional tennis as Hispanic and Latine women in the 1980s and 1990s.