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.
When I started this book, I actually hated it. The first chapter is a lengthy description of Swan Lake, told informally from a ballerina’s — Kate’s — point of view. And Kate is neurotic and at times immature, so it sounds a lot like this:
Just for a moment…we catch a glimpse of Odette far upstage on a platform thing…This is meant to show us that off at the lake, 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 2nite. xoxo : ) Odette.
It drove. me. NUTS. I almost stopped reading the book.
But then I figured, “I willingly sit through bad ballet movies — Center Stage, anyone? — and secretly end up liking them, so whatever. Keep reading.” Then that unfortunate first chapter was over, and I really did end up liking the book in all its ballet-referencing glory. There was even an indirect Center Stage reference, but even though the title wasn’t mentioned, I totally know my bad ballet movies and got the reference.
The author, Meg Howrey, was once a ballerina; I thought it was nice to get that behind-the-scenes perspective from a dancer’s point of view. Tidbits are sprinkled in throughout the book, like annoying questions dancers get asked by non-dancer fans, or sexual curiosities dancers put up with from men they date (FYI: splits are no good because there’s no traction, in case you’re wondering). If you’re like ballet (or ballet movies), or you like contemporary women’s fiction, or you want a book to read on a plane, The Cranes Dance is a good candidate for your consideration.
The Cranes Dance was released on May 15, 2012 by Vintage Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday.