The Ballerinas, Rachel Kapelke-Dale: A Review
Even though I've never danced, I've always loved the ballet. I was definitely the girl hitting replay on Center Stage (which is still one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies, tbh), so it should be no surprise that I smashed the request button on The Ballerinas and was thrilled to get started.
Following a tumultuous breakup in St. Petersburg, Delphine returns to the Paris Opera Ballet, a place she called home for most of her childhood years, in order to choreograph a new piece. She is eager to reunite with her two best friends, Margaux and Lindsay, despite the terrible secret she's carried with her for years. No longer children, their lives begin to unravel as secrets come to light, and Delphine realizes that things can never be the same.
I really liked this book.
The alternating past/present structure worked well. I loved seeing the girls in their early years juxtaposed with their current lives. It worked well to create an uneasy tension that kept the plot moving, much like the ballet Delphine wanted to choreograph. The dance element was authentic, and I could've read about the practices, grueling demands, and training all day. The respect, honor, and prestige to which Delphine holds herself and her friends is enamoring and engaging, and it was clear how devoted they were.
This is especially important to the final chapters, as the fine strands of chaos begin tying together. I know one of the comp titles was Black Swan, but I would say this book was much quieter than that, and most of it reminded me of the subtle seduction of Unfaithful. The characters collide and separate with grace and aggression that builds until the climactic conclusion.
What struck me most was the raw honesty and insight Kapelke-Dale inserted into the text. This isn't just a book about the super-competitive nature of dance--although that is a part of it. The "secret" plays second fiddle to the reality these women face. At its core, this is a stark examination of the objectification of women's bodies, both inside the world of ballet and the larger world in general. How interchangeability essentially makes them props while putting them on a pedestal as the ideal. How difficult it is to break out from the male gaze. I loved these moments the most, and found myself reflecting on the overarching issues long after I stopped reading.
At its core, The Ballerinas is a book about women taking ownership of their bodies and lives, of navigating their places in the world. It is a story about friendship, coming-of-age at any age, and redemption. I'd recommend to fans of Showtime's Flesh and Bone, quiet female-driven suspense, or anyone looking for an international lit fic with feminist perspectives.
Big thanks to St. Martin's and NetGalley for providing an eARC in exchange for honest review consideration.