Kate Crane is a talented twenty-three-year-old soloist at a prestigious New York City ballet company. As she dances her part in Swan Lake one night, she throws her neck out and must dance the rest of the show in pain.
So begins Kate’s downward spiral for the remainder of the ballet season: her neck injury leaves her in constant severe pain that only Vicodin can alleviate, her boyfriend has left her for someone else, and her little sister Gwen — who is also a ballerina in the company, and is arguably the more talented of the two — has had a mental breakdown of some sort and is back home with their parents in Michigan for the foreseeable future. In Gwen’s absence, Kate is left to parse through the tumultuous relationship she has with her sister, who is both her closest friend and her biggest competition. The jealousy and anger that has been simmering in Kate is now able to bubble to the surface. Kate also feels relief since, as the protective older sister, she bore witness to Gwen’s complicated unraveling.
It is appropriate that the novel opens with Swan Lake, as Kate and Gwen’s relationship has a White Swan/Black Swan edge to it, but the reader can’t really tell who’s who. Kate certainly has a darker, narcissistic edge to her: she walks around pretending like an audience is always watching her and behaves accordingly. She also wants her sister to succeed but is jealous of Gwen’s perfection. Gwen, who Kate (the narrator) introduces in gradual increments, harbors her own secrets and competes with her sister in passive aggressive ways.