At age thirty-three, Shea Rigsby still lives in her hometown of Walker, Texas, where the local college football program represents the only world she’s ever “truly cared about.” Shea works in the athletic department of the college, casually dates a former football player, and has kept the same best friend, Lucy, she’s had since childhood. In the opening pages of The One & Only, the seventh novel by Emily Giffin, Shea finds herself at the memorial service for Lucy’s mother, who’s lost a battle with cancer. Her thoughts turn to Lucy’s father, whom everyone, Shea included, calls “Coach” because of his position as head of Walker’s extraordinarily successful football team.
Shea has a particular affection for Coach Carr: she describes him as a deity, the sun around which everyone in Walker orbits. In spite of their twenty-two-year age gap (and Lucy’s obvious jealousy), Shea and Coach have an easy, engaging rapport that stems largely from their shared obsession with football, which serves as the heated backdrop of their high-stakes love story. “It was hard to say when my infatuation really began,” Shea says, “because from a very young age, I adored Coach Carr. I put him on a pedestal the way a lot of little girls do with their fathers.”
After Shea’s own father divorced her mother and moved to New York to remarry his first wife, Coach is
the only man in her life. When he offers directives, almost always addressing Shea as “girl,” she follows his instructions, ultimately breaking up with her boyfriend, who Coach believes isn’t good enough for her, and applying for a job as a sports reporter at a local paper. “There wasn’t a chance in hell I could refuse … anything Coach Carr asked me to do,” Giffin writes. Though Shea’s hero-worship is obvious, she’s blind to the romantic feelings just beneath its surface.
It takes a few weeks of hesitation before she follows Coach’s advice, but her work as a sports reporter immediately throws her back into his path when she wrangles an assignment to write about the Walker team. “I can be objective,” she assures her rightfully dubious editor; even the pro-Walker bumper sticker on her car refutes that statement.
Both Shea’s self-professed objectivity and her allegiance are tested when an NCAA investigation threatens to reveal a dark side to the team and its esteemed leader—and when another football player begins to show an interest in her. In Giffin’s well-paced, 432-page novel, which cautiously unpacks the Electra complex at its core, nothing is cut-and-dried. In football, by contrast, passions may run wild but the rules, at least, remain the same.
Giffin’s previous six novels have also mined relationships, from lifelong friendships to extramarital affairs, with nuanced precision and consistently realistic female protagonists whom readers clearly respond to. (Her last three books all debuted at the number-two spot on The New York Times bestseller list, inspiring her husband to pronounce her the “Buffalo Bill of novelists.”) Giffin has a polished writing style that maintains its light touch even when the subject dips into dark territory; she has a knack for drawing readers into her stories and depicting unappealing, even sordid, situations with enough depth and emotion to make readers root for her main characters. A frothy, guilty-pleasure summertime read, The One & Only is no exception.
Sarah Norris holds an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College and has reviewed books for The Daily Beast, Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle, and Village Voice, among other publications. She lives in Nashville.