this is a story about a prestigious family-owned ballet school in the run-up to their big holiday season production of The Nutcracker; the atmosphere crackling with the energy of anxious parents and tiny dancers; hope, excitement, and disappointment mingling in the air.
but this is megan abbott, so it’s gonna dig deep under that banal sugarplum premise to unearth the gothic drama lurking just beneath the festive girl-glitter, removing the pretty pink toe shoes to expose the mangled dancer’s feet within—blackened toenails sprinkling off, reminding you, as she always does, how beautiful things could be all broken inside.
ballet is the logical next-step in abbott’s progression of novels spotlighting the gritty underbelly of ostensibly pretty, “girly” pursuits (cheerleading in Dare Me, gymnastics in You Will Know Me); the brute physicality and athleticism required to compete at the highest levels of these largely female-dominated spheres, and the psychological fortitude; the drive and ambition, the sheer willpower and sacrifice it takes to succeed.
ballet illustrates all of this perfectly in its juxtaposition of fragility and power—physically demanding, dancers achieving strength and flexibility by breaking and reshaping their bodies, the sheer amount of pain that goes into creating the illusion of lightness, effortlessness, in a performance.
We have a different relationship to pain, their mother used to say. It’s our friend, our lover.
When you wake up and the pain is gone, do you know what that means?
What, they’d ask every time.
You’re no longer a dancer.
megan abbott is the absolute queen when it comes to panning all the dark bits out of the sugar and spice of the adolescent female experience; ambition, rage, desire, obsession, the space where childhood loyalty gives way to self-interest, and most especially, the power of young bodies—the exhilarated flush of training, of winning, the freedom and power in the strength of their limbs, the invigorating discovery of their sexual currency, her characters a-quiver with invincibility and the possibilities of life before them.
although the bodies in this one are grown, the characters have lived so narrowly that they are emotional adolescents in many ways, and as ballet teachers, they are surrounded wall-to-wall by young bodies, the book claustrophobic with ’em: stretching, posing, arching, aching, yearning. it’s sweat and effort and pushing beyond limits, and it is her most frankly erotic work thus far. even when it’s not explicitly about sex, it’s using the language of sex to create this kinda sensual fog that permeates everything:
Long summer nights, the click of the beetles, the soft grind of the cicadas, all those crickets rubbing their legs together, the low moan of the mosquitoes at the screen.
yeah, megan abbott just made bugs sexy, and the eroticism jamboree doesn’t stop at the wanton moaning of insects, flip to any page and there’ll be a passage like that; something oblique or overt making it very warm in here, indeed. let’s try it!
The Fire Eater, the Sword Swallower. They were both women, dark and fair and fearless, their heads pitched back, their mouths wide open, everything laid bare.
They could take these things inside them and emerge unscathed. Dangerous things, deadly things. They could take these things inside and remain untouched, immaculate. The same forever. Forever the same.
you can play this game yourselves at home, very soon.
plotstuff: sisters dara and marie durant were raised in a ballet-bubble, indifferently homeschooled by their dancer-mother while their father worked long stretches away from home, his occasional presence in their realm almost an intrusion:
Every evening when he wasn’t traveling, he’d come home from work and navigate stacks of pointe shoes, towers of them in the corners, tights hanging on doorknobs. Music, forever, from the old stereo console, from the turntable upstairs. The sound, forever, of the barre squeaking, Dara’s or Marie’s eager hands on it, their mother’s voice intoning, Lift through the leg! Turn that foot out! Their house was all ballet, all the time.
their childhood was sheltered and friendless, with nothing but dance and each other, but they were happy in their female cave, wearing leotards all day and dancing until their feet went numb, learning lessons about life and love and dance from their glamorous-feline mother.
the female-energy-dominated sphere changed when the girls were teenagers and their mother’s star pupil charlie moved in with them. their bubble expanded to absorb him; a boy, but still a lithe-bodied member of their tribe, training all day together, the foursome piling into their mother’s bed at night to watch performances; inseparable, the boundaries between them blurred, and soon dara and charlie begin sleeping together.
abbot’s depiction of the highly-charged atmosphere within their “Hansel and Gretel house” with its “rotting gingerbread trim” is *chef’s kiss* perfection. even before charlie’s arrival, their lives were characterized by a careless, nearly claustrophobic intimacy—growing up on top of each other, always half-undressed, sweating their leotards sheer, their days spent focused on their bodies—legs, hips, posture, and the pleasurable pain of delicate things tearing—a hothouse of sensuality where the girls discovered the secret pleasures of their bodies separated only by the partition between their bunk bed, casual and even somewhat competitive about masturbation and their orgasms, dara having sex with charlie while marie lay awake above them; the whole house a warm pink erotically-charged dynamic bonding them together. the three became inseparable, and after the girls’ parents are killed in a car accident, charlie and dara get married and the three of them continue to live together in their childhood home, running their mother’s studio. marie, the younger, softer sister instructing the beginners, while dara whips the older ones into hardcore dancers, and charlie, his body broken after a years of injuries and surgeries, manages the business side of things and everything continues as it always has.
It was the three of them. Always the three of them. Until it wasn’t. And that was when everything went wrong. Starting with the fire. Or before.
the fire (which, i know i’ve been going on and on with too many words and blah, but most of this is backstory and the fire takes place on page 29, so we’re not even close to spoilertown) destroys a portion of the already-rickety studio, but the bigger consequence is that it brings derek into their lives; the swaggering contractor and unlikely suitor who nevertheless becomes marie’s lover. dara can’t understand why delicate marie is drawn to this man; so loud and blunt and emphatically masculine as he invades their space; the wolfish, brute sexuality of him leaving marks on marie’s skin. his arrival is the catalyst that challenges their whole small stunted world.
it’s slow-burning sinister; a gothic suburban drama—grey gardens with a splash of vc andrews—featuring insular and codependent characters drifting between a crumbling house and a crumbling studio, bloody toe shoes strewn about; a story of submission and power, obsession and mental fragility, everything obscured by smoke and family secrets…it’s so very deliciously megan abbott and soon it
can will be yours.
me getting my hands on this ARC is the best thing about 2021 so far. review to come…