Girl Through Glass 2

A Ballet Princess and Balletomania (NYC 1978–1981; Ohio present): Sari Wilson’s debut historical novel is as masterful as her ballet protagonist’s stirring story of “self-mastery.”

This is the fourth novel I’ve reviewed involving the ballet arts (see Astonish Me, I Always Loved You, and The Painted Girls). So, yes, I’m drawn to reading about people passionate about the ballet.

Like author Joanna Rakoff’s glowing testimonial, “I loved, loved, loved this novel.” It’s the most psychological, provocative, affecting, and darkest among the group. Since I tend toward the lighter-hearted, here’s why the hype rings true:

Suspenseful Structure: by composing the novel in two narrative points-of-view – third-person Mira Able and first-person Kate Randell — the reader is taunted and haunted by similarities and revelations between them:11-14 year old ballet student Mira, a Brooklyn to Manhattan (due to divorce and re-marriage) “bunhead” in the late 1970s and early ‘80s versus forty-something dance historian professor Kate, an adjunct teacher at an Ohio college in the present day. We race through briskly designed chapters to discover how they’re connected. For as candid as Mira and Kate seem, both are keeping secrets. I figured out one of them: the relationship between the two characters, but it took me awhile to be absolutely sure. Mira and Kate each harbor other secrets. Mira’s drives the plot. Eureka when its divulged. Which is why, dear reader, much of the storyline cannot be told here. No spoilers!

George Balanchine
Tanaquil LeClerq personal archive [Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons

Mira’s character study takes place when NYC was in a downturn, but its fervor for the ballet was soaring. “Manhattan is in love with the ballet,” affirms our third-person narrator. For here at Lincoln Center was the home of one of the world’s top ballet companies — George Balanchine’s NYCB — and one of the most selective ballet schools in the country (only 1 in 100 accepted), which he also founded, the School of American Ballet, SAB. (NYC’s American Ballet Theatre, ABT, is its greatest competitor. ABT is more classical as Balanchine is famous for creating his own repertoires inspired by the classical, or neo-classical. SAB is considered more intense, and as depicted, has the edge in prestige.) Balanchine is also known for a distinct style of movements and aesthetics. “Mr. B” expects simplicity and weightlessness from his waif-like yet energetically strong ballet students and stunning ballerinas – a “cult of beauty and perfection.”

For Mira, the ballet studio is the only place she feels she belongs, where she becomes a “carefree girl” who is “floating free.” Free from her painfully disengaged hippieish mother, so unlike the doting, deeply-invested “ballet mothers.” She’s also escaping a “topsy-turvy” Brooklyn brownstone, and a well-meaning but pre–occupied father with a drinking problem who has run away from her mother too. Redheaded, freckled, thin, serious, sad, and lonely Mira does not fit in, doesn’t know who to trust, but wants to be adored.

Third-person narration offers us perspective and insight into Mira’s ballet dreams, pressures, discipline, and sacrifices – into the price of beauty, perfectionism, and ballet stardom. Kate’s first-person narration allows us to sense her intimately. She’s unsettled and unsettling, professionally and personally. She even confesses she’s “drawn to the illicit, the secretive.”

Insider’s Look at a Closely-Held, Coveted World: Sari Wilson writes with authority about an artistic world and places she knows well. A former ballet student at New York City’s Neubert Ballet Theatre, Harkness Ballet, and Eliot Feld’s New Ballet School, she also studied and performed modern dance at Oberlin College in Ohio. Even with these germane experiences, her novel feels impressively authentic, as she portrays the “vanishing child-self” who is:

“being molded into the stick-thin hipless Balanchine ballerinas, known far and wide as Balanchine’s ‘pinheads.’ If there is a fairy tale at work here,” Wilson says, it is not really Cinderella, but more like Hansel and Gretel.”

Poignant Balletomane: Ballet is an art form that inspires mania. Forty-six-year-old, grey-haired, polio-stricken (a cruel fate for someone who idolizes beauty) Maurice Dupont notices Mira’s special ballet beauty. He mentors her, calls her Mirabelle, then Bella. His beautifully-crafted backstory illuminates his balletomania. Through his character, we learn about classical 19th century ballet legends, as their photographs adorn his Manhattan apartment walls, especially Pavlova’s, whose famous burnt-through the toe box pointe shoes he owns and cherishes.

History of Ballet Greats: creating a dance historian character provides a splendid vehicle for also informing us about celebrated classical and modern ballet dancers, choreographers, teachers, and operas. So many greats were, of course, Russians; also Italian and French. Their names fill dance history books — Petipa, Nijinsky, Nureyev, Markova, Legnani, Karsavina, Ulanova, Taglioni, Spessivtseva, Danilova, Toumanova, Tumkovsky. I had a field day looking them up!

Ballet Prose: Ballet words dance gently through the pages: glissade, pas de boureé, changement, soutenu, jeté, ronde de jambé, port de bras, développé. A nice place to search for these terms tied to observing their movements is ABT’s ballet dictionary.

In under 300 pages, Girl Through Glass has it all. Complicated, ambivalent relationships. Characters struggling to define themselves, happiness, virtuosity. A suggestive title that reflects a girl who “never felt like a child;” a woman who feels “hollow;” a city witnessing a skyscraper boom of glass, fantastical and high-reaching like the ballet dancers. Classical and Modern converging. Life that asks “more and more,” while ballet seeks “lighter and lighter.” Artistry that personifies beauty, yet up-close we see the “suffering.”

By Lambtron (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

I choose to remember a beautiful young girl flying sky-high over the glass. You will remember her too.


2 thoughts on “Girl Through Glass

  1. Reply Jackie Cangro Jan 31,2016 8:31 PM

    Lovely review, Lorraine. This novel seems to get under the skin of this insular world. Fascinating! For someone not too familiar with ballet (other than the annual visit to watch The Nutcracker), which of the four novels would you recommend as an easy entry point?

  2. Reply lorraine Feb 1,2016 10:25 AM

    Hi Jackie,

    I’d suggest ASTONISH ME, by Maggie Shipstead (I still haven’t read her much-liked SEATING ARRANGEMENTS, have you?). It’s not as dark, and gives you a compelling inside look at the art too. There are some similarities between the two ( The other two historical novels look at the ballet from a painterly and sculptor’s point of view – Degas. I ALWAYS LOVED YOU is beautifully written (about the relationship between Mary Cassatt and Degas.).

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