After my trip down childhood’s memory lane,
I decided to jump over to read a YA novel set in a ballet school in Manhattan.
Tiny Pretty Things, by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton, takes the usual envies, rivalries, and jealousies of adolescent girls and ramps them up exponentially by placing them within the rarefied atmosphere of one of the elite—and therefore intensely competitive—ballet schools feeding into the American Ballet Theatre. The girls in the story are at levels 6-8, the top three at their school, and therefore about the equivalent of juniors and seniors in high school, except that their preferred outcome to academic distinction and college is a place as a dancer at the top ballet company in the country.
The authors do well at distinguishing the various personalities among the girls. There is Bette, a dainty ice-blonde diva with a perfect turnout, whose older sister’s legendary prowess weighs heavily on her. Her boyfriend, Alec, is also her talented dance partner, looks as if he could be her taller, more muscular blond brother, and is the son of one of the members of the board of trustees, giving him (and Bette by extension) an edge.
June, Korean name E-Jun, is fighting against both the school’s and her mother’s judgment to keep her place; her dance technique is all but perfect, but she has never been cast as anything but an understudy, and is desperately starving herself and rehearsing hours a day to change that judgment. It doesn’t help that her fellow Koreans at the school shun and belittle her.
Eleanor, as Bette’s best friend, has been eclipsed by her in every way, although gaining a certain caché by being a part of her entourage; it’s hinted that she may have found another, less reputable way of working herself up the corps de ballet ranks into a solo position. And Giselle, known as Gigi, the new girl in school, is a mixed-race carefree Californian, immensely talented but not used to the intense and sometimes hateful climate of these surroundings, and with a secret malady that puts her at a disadvantage should anyone find out.
There is a back story involving the previous new-girl-in-school, Cassie, a cousin of Alec’s who was injured last year when she was dropped from a hold during a rehearsal and broke her hip. Will, the dancer who dropped her, has a secret that certain people were willing to keep if he would help them out by removing Cassie from competition, but no one thought it would be so permanent. Henri, a newly enrolled student from France, turns out to have a connection with Cassie that has brought him to the school to discover who sabotaged her career. And now that Cassie has been replaced by Gigi, odd occurrences start up again to dog her progress, from malicious rumors to damning pictures to active attempts at injury.
I can definitely see how both the romance of the dance and the competitive snarkiness of the dancers in this book would appeal to teens. It’s another iteration of Gossip Girls, but with ballet as its background. The characters are well defined, the world-building backdrop of ballet school is convincing, and the drama is compelling.
The big flaw for me was that there is absolutely no resolution in this book. Suspicions are high that Bette is behind the pranks that turn ugly, but then we discover that in fact she is only accountable for a few of the most obvious, and someone else behind the scenes is conducting the rest of the campaign. We receive hints at who it might be, but nothing is ever confirmed, and after reading the entire book waiting for resolution to the mystery, I discovered that there is a whole other book, Shiny Broken Pieces, that you have to read to find out what happens to Bette, June, and Gigi! And while I mostly enjoyed this volume, by the end I was weary of the tiresome back-and-forth he-said-she-said of who was responsible for what, and I don’t think I have the patience or the interest to pursue those answers for another almost 400 pages! Perhaps I’ll come back to this story someday…
There are numerous other books, some written for teens, that incorporate ballet (and other kinds of dance, too, of course) in fiction. One I read and enjoyed was Bunheads, by Sophie Flack. Another is the dark and disturbing The Walls Around Us, by Nova Ren Suma. And of course there is the classic children’s book, Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfeild, immortalized by Meg Ryan in the movie You’ve Got Mail. If you like this theme, here is a list of YA Dance Books compiled by Goodreads members, some of which you might enjoy.