One of the (very very very very very) few benefits of losing power and all connection to the outside world is it gives you plenty of time to read. Our power went out, thanks to the outer bands of Hurricane Ida (in case you weren’t paying attention) at approximately eleven am in Sunday, August 29th–which also happened to be the sixteenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. (Another benefit of not having power and not being connected to the outside world–I didn’t have to see all the doom-and-gloom coverage, plus the constant Katrina references; I lived through it already, and have seen enough news documentaries about it; no thanks–especially with the added DISASTER glee of a NEW HURRICANE!!! EVEN BIGGER AND MORE POWERFUL THAN KATRINA!!!)
At any rate, in those days before we finally said no mas to the lack of power and fled for the wilds of Alabama, I managed to read a fucking lot.
The book I was reading before and during the storm–I finished with a flashlight as the winds and rains of Ida battered my house–was Megan Abbott’s The Turnout, which I couldn’t put down.
You see, I love ballet.
It’s something that I’ve rarely had the chance to see in my life until the advent of Youtube; I’ve while away many an hour down a ballet wormhole on Youtube, marveling at the insane way the dancers can twist, contort, and launch their bodies in ways bodies weren’t meant to twist or contort or launch; and yet not only can they do it–it’s breathtakingly beautiful to watch. It’s part of what drew me to gymnastics and figure skating, too–the amazingly difficult things these athletes (and don’t ever for a moment believe that ballet dancers are not athletes) can do with their bodies, and how easy and beautiful they make it look. When I was a kid, we watched The Nutcracker on television; I hated it (still do) but was nevertheless amazed at the dancers, how disciplined and beautiful their movements were, how they used every muscle in their body and somehow made it all look as easy as breathing, as blinking, as smiling.
I remember thinking, I want to do that.
Ballet wasn’t an option, needless to say–and I probably wouldn’t have been good at it; I was incredibly clumsy (still am, really, just have a better sense of my body and better spatial awareness) and uncoordinated…on the other hand, it might have been the perfect thing for me, may have made me disciplined, changed my perception of self and worth by working hard at something I would love…but what can you do now? I’ve always wanted to write a ballet noir about a gay ballet dancer–I had the idea back in the early 1990’s, wrote it all out, including characters and a plot synopsis (and yes, of course I have the title). The folder is in my file cabinet in the “maybe get to soon” drawer; I often pause on it when I go through the drawer looking for something else. Occasionally, as I watch the videos on Youtube (and they have stuff from Nureyev, who fascinated me and kind of still does, as well as Baryshnikov and many many many others), I think about it. I was watching a documentary about the acid attack on the enfánt terrible director of the Bolshoi when Paul came home one night, and he was startled to see me watching it. He had no idea about my affinity for the ballet; I told him about my book idea and how I’d always loved ballet–and he got me tickets to see the Royal Ballet Company of Monaco when they came to New Orleans for Christmas, as well as several autobiographies of dancers.
And as always, it’s such a joy to read a new novel from someone who will be considered one of the greats of our time–even though she has now set the bar so high for crime novels about ballet I may never dare to even think about writing one myself.
They were dancers. Their whole lives, nearly. They were dancers who taught dance and taught it well, as their mother had.
“Every girl wants to be a ballerina…”
That’s what their brochure said, their posters, their website, the sentence scrolling across the screen in stately cursive.
THE DURANT SCHOOL OF DANCE, EST. 1986 by their mother, a former soloist with the Alberta Ballet, took up the top twofloors of a squat, rusty brick office building downtown. It had become theirs after their parents died on a black-ice night more than a dozen years ago, their car caroming across the highway median. When an enterprising local learned it had been their twentieth wedding anniversary, he wrote a story about them, noting their hands were interlocked even in death.
Had one of them reached out to the other in those final moments, the reporter wondered to readers, or had they been holding hands all along?
All these years later, the story of their parents’ end, passed down like lore, still seemed unbearably romantic to their students–less so to Marie, who, after sobbing violently next to her sister, Dara, through the funeral, insisted, I never saw them holds hands once.
Megan Abbott is one of my favorite writers, and is, in my humble opinion, probably one of the best publishing in our time. Her books just blow me away, every time–and I never know what I am in for when I start reading one, either, as far as character and subtext and story and the complex, layered, complicated relationships between her fully realized characters, who all live and breathe and have interior lives–including those who appear in just a scene or two. I don’t know how she does it–Abbott can do more with a sentence (as far as character definition, mood, setting–any aspect of good writing, really) than most can do with several paragraphs.
The Turnout focuses on the two sisters, and Dara’s husband, a male ballet prodigy whose career was tragically cut short by a vicious spinal injury. The three grew up together under their mother’s tyrannical rule, and there is an odd, group dynamic at play there, where Dara and Charles are almost, sort of like surrogate parents to Marie–who has an oddly childlike quality to her. The story of the novel plays out during their preparation for their annual production of The Nutcracker (because of course it had to be the one ballet I loathe, LOL–but let’s be honest, it IS the ballet the school would put on at Christmas every year), and while the three of them split up the work of producing the ballet and running the school, our primary point of view character is Dara. Her relationship with her husband has an odd touch of brother-sister to it; they grew up together, of course, and her relationship with her sister has many layers and undercurrents. Marie has often tried to escape the town they live in and the school–but has always wound up coming back home, more fragile than before she left. The sisterly relationship is as equally complex as the marriage, and the weird dynamic of the two sisters having a deeply close relationship to the same man, who grew up as basically a brother to them, raised all kinds of flags for me as I read. Marie has broken free from the complex menage a tróis; she has moved into the attic of the school to try to break free of the claustrophobic family ties. But a fire in one of the studios results in damage and the hiring of a shady contractor; who soon infiltrates the tight little family and all of the traumas, public and private, within the family begin to resurface when Marie falls for the man, whom Dara hates pretty much on sight. As the needs of the production begin to multiply the closer the show’s run comes, with the one studio under repair and seemingly more and more money falling into the contractor’s hands while the school inches ever closer to bankruptcy–and the fragile little family unit also begins to feel the pressure begin building to the breaking point as well, when Marie becomes sexually involved with the contractor and Dara begins to fear what else her sister is sharing with him other than her body…because the Durants have some deep, dark secrets Dara does not want anyone to know about.
Abbott’s writing style is not only cinematic–you can visualize easily everything she writes about, whether it’s a ballerina breaking in a new pair of pointe shoes; the smell of ointments to ease the ache of sore muscles and enflamed joints; the bitter rivalries and cruelties of young girls competing for the lead; the demanding entitlements of ballet parents; the awkwardness of a young man who dances ballet despite his father’s objections; or the experience of trying to work while construction is going on around you. Dara, the more confident of the two sisters, the alpha of the three in the little family group, finds herself lost, losing her stability, the solid foundation her life is build upon, and cannot really handle the shift in her little world, left unsure and unable to explain or understand her sister’s behavior–or the distance growing between her and Charles, which she is ill equipped to do anything about. That sense of things spiraling out of control, the inability to stop the out-of-control train plunging forward, contrasts beautifully with the art of ballet–where control is so important.
Abbott does a magnificent job of building tension, keeping the reader enrapt and turning the pages as everything starts to not only boil, but boil over–and her gift for language, for putting the right words together in a sentence that appears to be quite simple but actually conveys a multi-layered complexity, is extraordinary. Her keen insights into the incredibly complicated relationships between the two sisters and Charles, the tragedy of Marie’s loneliness and inability to break free of her past and her family because of her own fragility, are sharp as a syringe.
I loved this book, but hated to see it end…because now I have to wait for the next Abbott novel–and however long it will take to get a new one is far, far too long.