I came late to ballet, as I have to many things. I don’t have heart-warming stories of my mother taking me to the Nutcracker every year, or anything more than the fuzziest of memories of my few lessons as a five-year-old. In the spring of 2014, though, I picked up Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me at a book signing. I hadn’t read her first novel, Seating Arrangements, but I’d heard great things about it, and I was thirsty to learn as much as I could from good writers, especially women. (That summer, for precisely this purpose, I practically lived at Politics and Prose, my fabulous local independent bookstore.) Astonish Me turned out to be my favourite read of the year. The writing is lovely and the structure is rich and complex in a way that adds to the book and that I hope to learn from as I rework a previous novel of my own. It is packed with things I like in books: doomed love, the Cold War, characters who are exactly my age. It won me over.
It was the start, or something like the start, of my fascination with dance. I love the behind-the-scenes glimpses of that world. I’ve written here about my interest for political campaigns, and I think the ballet world draws me for similar reasons. I enjoy reading about driven people with a singular focus and a passionate determination to reach their goals, about the things this makes them do, the way it brings out both the best and the worst in them as they seek achievement at any cost. The relationships that are often lost or irreparably damaged in the midst of fierce competition. The bittersweet taste of victory in the light of all of that.
A few months after reading Astonish Me, I was browsing Goodreads when a review from one of my MFA classmates caught my eye: “From the first chapter’s analysis of Swan Lake to the final moments, I was hooked. Great look into ballet, mental illness, and sisterhood,” she wrote. I had never heard of the novel in question, Meg Howrey’s The Cranes Dance, but this particular friend has a similar aesthetic to mine, and I trust her judgement. The next time I visited Strand Books, I made sure I checked whether they happened to have it. They did. I bought it, and it sort of changed my life. The acerbic voice of the ballerina narrator hooked me, too, but perhaps more importantly (as life change goes), the novel taught me about adult drop-in ballet classes. I had assumed I had long since missed the boat, and knew that I didn’t have the body type, or the talent, or the hand-eye coordination, for dance of any kind. But wouldn’t it be fun, or at least good for me, to try something new? Something at which I could never hope to excel and that was therefore free of any pressure? And besides, I needed to flesh out one of the characters in the novel I was working on at the time. Since I love to write about my obsessions, and ballet was rapidly becoming one, maybe I could give this character a past as a ballerina. Let the dance classes fuel my creativity and give me a new vocabulary and way to get inside her head.
I was lucky to find a great teacher, and for months I went at least once and often twice a week. On my way to and from my Tuesday morning class, I often listened to the All the Books podcast, and that was where I heard about Tiny Pretty Things, a YA novel by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton about mean girls at an élite ballet school. Who decided that books about teenagers should only be read by teenagers? I suspected this one was totally up my street, and I was right. It was the only book that was able to hold my attention during my Great Summer Reading Slump of 2015, and I’ve been recommending it ever since. A few months earlier, also thanks to Book Riot, I’d been captivated by another YA novel about élite ballerinas: Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us. It was the dance that drew me – it’s a much darker read than my usual fare – though there is really more about murder and ghosts and prison than ballet itself.
These days, though, all you have to do to get me to buy your book is make sure the word “ballet” is somewhere in the story. Next on my list are Brandy Colbert’s Pointe and Colum McCann’s Dancer, as well as Misty Copeland’s autobiography, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. I’ll be surprised if I stop there.