Since I was looking specifically for books that included ballet, but also told a good story, I’ve decided to rate them both with stars and ballet slippers. Stars are for the literary enjoyment, and ballet slippers are for the relevance that dance had in it.
The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
We used to live near the Norton Simon Museum where there is a collection of Degas’s statuettes of ballerinas. It’s such a small little piece of the collection, but I love looking at them, and that’s what excited about this novel about two young sisters who danced for the Paris Opera while Degas was painting and sculpting ballerinas. Antoinette is the tough older sister, scraping together to take care of her two younger sisters in the drunken absences of their mother. Marie is literate and smart, and has just joined the Opera, excelling as a member of the corps, much to Degas’s notice. He asks her to pose for him for paintings and sculptures. At the intersection of three historic Parisian events, Antoinette leaves the Opera and is wooed by Emile, a hot-tempered young man that is consumed by Antoinette, much to Marie’s disapproval. Was it entertaining? Sure. Did it really say much about ballet? Not really. But I did learn about the young women who danced for the Opera and what opportunities performing in the academy provided for them. 3/5 stars; 2/5 ballet slippers
Dancer by Colum McCann
This expansive and beautiful novel is based on the life of Rudolf Nureyev, the famed ballet dancer who defected from the Soviet Union to dance with the Royal Ballet. You might recognize him from his guest role on The Muppet Show. In McCann’s typical style, Nureyev’s life story is told from the perspectives of those in his life, observers to his talent, ego, and artistry. This is a brilliant technique because there remains an air of mystery about him. Only one narrator got on my nerves because there were no gaps in his endless thoughts and dialogue. Those were difficult sections to get through, but were exactly how I imagined that character to be, which I give McCann credit for. He would get on my nerves in real life, too. But really, I loved this book! It had me watching video after video of Nureyev dancing, and trying to find out as much as I could about him. I highly recommend this read. 5/5 stars 5/5 ballet slippers
Life in Motion by Misty Copeland
Misty Copeland is a soloist with the American Ballet Theater. She is a Los Angeles native (they do exist!) who came to ballet at a late age for a dancer, thirteen. She quit her first lesson at The Boys and Girls Club where she went with her siblings after school, but was encouraged to keep dancing. Quickly, her talent developed, and Misty set off on a path to become a prima ballerina. But she hit some roadblocks and had to keep her eyes on the prize. She is beautiful and has certainly brought ballet back to the popular stage, but her writing isn’t spectacular and, sometimes, comes across as disingenuous. 3/5 stars, 4/5 ballet slippers
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
In the same vein as Dancer, Shipstead weaves together multiple perspectives to tell a family’s story. This family is rooted in ballet, and part of the story even includes a Russian defector of great fame. Astonish Me was the novel that started my great summer dance project, but was the last one I got to read. I really liked it. Shipstead’s style is on point and mature, but still tells a complete story that is interesting, which is sometimes lost in recent contemporary novels. I haven’t read Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements, which has gotten mixed reviews, but I can say her sophomore effort is wonderful. 4/5 stars, 4/5 ballet slippers
Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans
This title has been touted as the “definitive written history of ballet.” I knew I had to put this book on the list, but truthfully, I didn’t finish it. It is not that I didn’t think it was interesting. I just couldn’t get into it enough to keep me reading. I did find that she provides a comprehensive history of the music of the age and how it was performed, which is helpful in understanding the feeling around culture in general at ballet’s inception, but that might have been my downfall, as I studied lots of music history in college and I just wanted ballet!
Do you have any ballet book recs I’m missing?