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Book Review: The Cranes Dance

July 8, 2012

The Cranes Dance
Meg Howrey
Vintage Contemporaries
May 2012, $14.95, 368 pages
(Thanks to David Archer at Vintage for sending a copy.)

Kate and Gwen are sisters, and ballerinas in the same prestigious New York ballet company. Both sisters have been devoted to ballet all their lives, driving themselves hard, practicing, perfecting techniques. But, as Kate begins to tell the story, Gwen has left the ballet company and New York, after a health crisis, or mental or emotional meltdown. The details are sketched in, as Kate remembers and describes them, dealing with her grief and guilt over the part she played in getting Gwen help and sending Gwen home.

There are two parallel narratives woven throughout. This is a ballet story, of Kate’s experience of rehearsals and performance and training as a ballerina, inhabiting that world with its characters. Kate’s first person narrative is full of accessible detail, and some very funny deprecating asides. Kate can be passionate about ballet, and pushing herself to excel, but she can also poke fun at some of the conventions of the art. Her synopsis of Swan Lake made me laugh out loud: “A Village Green Scene is standard issue for classical ballet, and if you’ve seen one circlet of peasant dancing hoo-ha, you’ve seen them all.” “Odette has a sense that she is being betrayed and is trying to warn the Prince, but of course this doesn’t work. We are in Days of Yore, and it’s not like she can text him or anything. Odile not 4 real. C U at lake tonite  xoxo.”

I only have a little bit of familiarity with the world of the ballet, so getting in Kate’s head to learn about her world was fascinating. And more fun because of her pithy and self-deprecating humor.

I would happily have read this story as a pure ballet world character study. I find the ballet world fascinating. My Aunt Meg has taken me to a couple of New York City Ballet practice sessions, which I find engrossing to watch. Dancers focusing and pushing their bodies, perfecting their techniques. Some of that came through in this story, and I loved it. I think I’m more interested in the backstage mechanics and discipline of the dancers’ training than I would be in watching an actual classical ballet.

I was also more interested in the ballet-focused aspects of Kate and Gwen’s story, than I was in the relationship study and  the process of Gwen’s breakdown. It was pretty clear that Gwen’s breakdown was intended to carry the main emotional weight of the book, in terms of tracing Kate’s memories of what led up to it. There’s some very close character narrative showing how Kate processed her own actions, her feelings of guilt at not seeing Gwen’s breakdown in its early signs, guilt that she brought her parents in to help and Gwen felt betrayed, her fear at seeing the way Gwen disconnected from reality.  I got really impatient with that aspect of the story though. I just wasn’t interested. Could be that the emotional pull of “chick lit,” just isn’t my genre, and doesn’t grab me. I’m also still trying to formulate my thoughts about the way sadness and anguish drive the plot in women’s fiction, as a feminist concern. 

I was much more interested in reading a straight ballet narrative and character study. Even without anguish over her sister and her family, Kate has plenty to deal with, in the routines of ballet and training and performance and pushing herself in a grueling, exacting and self-contained world.  I remember enjoying the YA novel, Bunheads, by Sophie Flack, for similar reasons. And I really like Kate’s narrative voice, with its grasp of that world in all its strange potential for humor.

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