Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Review: Bunheads by Sophie Flack
As a dancer with the ultra-prestigious Manhattan Ballet Company, nineteen-year-old Hannah Ward juggles intense rehearsals, dazzling performances and complicated backstage relationships. Up until now, Hannah has happily devoted her entire life to ballet.
But when she meets a handsome musician named Jacob, Hannah's universe begins to change, and she must decide if she wants to compete against the other "bunheads" in the company for a star soloist spot or strike out on her own in the real world. Does she dare give up the gilded confines of the ballet for the freedoms of everyday life?
Bunheads is a really interesting addition to the canon of girls-who-dance literature. Hannah has already ‘made it.’ She’s a member of the corps de ballet in one of the best ballet companies in the world, the Manhattan Ballet Company (clearly supposed to be the New York City Ballet both because the author Sophie Flack danced there and because that’s the New York company that performs Balanchine’s Jewels). Between that fact and that Hannah’s the rare YA protagonist who’s college aged instead of in high school, this book is both a fantastic read and something very different to enjoy.
Hannah’s life is something very few of us can even begin to imagine. She’s utterly devoted to her art, and since she moved to New York to study, she’s barely had a chance to see any of the city beyond the interior of the Manhattan Ballet’s studios, theatre, and school. Even though she’s accomplished far more than the vast majority of ballet dancers ever manage to, it’s not nearly enough, and she and her friends in the corps work even harder now to try to be cast in bigger roles and be promoted to soloist.
I really enjoyed Hannah as the main character. She breathes ballet, but ever so slightly she’s beginning to wonder if she’s missing anything in life. The idea begins (as so many do) with a chance encounter with a boy, but the author really does an excellent job making sure that Hannah’s decision is never between the boy and ballet but rather the entire world and ballet. If it had been just the first, this would be a much, much weaker book. While she’s obviously an intensely dedicated person, we meet her as her devotion may be waning. She decides over and over to try to rededicate herself to ballet. If it was something less than her entire life, she’d seem awfully wishy-washy, but the enormity of any decision has been firmly established, and instead Hannah is a woman trying to decide the course of the rest of her life.
The reader is given an in-depth look at the world of the corps de ballet and the short dancing lives of the people who inhabit it. One of my favourite lines was at the very beginning when Hannah remarks that dancers rarely buy new practice clothes because no one knows when their career will come to a sudden halt. The dressing room more than the stage is the central focus of the book, and along with Hannah, the reader meets the dancers who share the room and also rotate through roles as friends, confidants, rivals, backstabbers, and sisters-in-arms on a near hourly basis. The ever shifting alliances and jealousies make for an interesting and slightly confusing set of personalities, and the confusion the reader feels only enhances Hannah’s continual uncertainty about where she stands.
There isn’t a lot of high drama in this book which matches well with Flack’s reserved writing style. Unfortunately it was so reserved that at times I wished for a little more intensity to the scenes especially the higher tension ones – between Hannah and the ballet master or between Hannah and Jacob. It’s clear that this is Flack’s debut novel, and I’ll be interested to see if she succeeds at writing a different story, one that’s not based on her own life. For Bunheads, the tension of the ballet scene is enough to carry novel, but there’s a decided lack of any external tension or plot movement.
I also wasn’t enamored of Jacob. He was never fleshed out into a truly three-dimensional character or even move much past ‘interested in the narrator.’ I never really understood why Hannah liked this awfully stereotypical musician. On one hand, this makes sense since part of the conflict is that Hannah can’t spend much time with him, but on the other hand, a more deft rendering of his character would have been really nice.
There’s a possible love triangle that’s sketched in, and while the character remained fairly two-dimensional, I could definitely understand Hannah’s attraction to him since he represented all the acclaim a true ballerina, not just a corps dancer, could attain. However beyond that, there isn’t much to the love triangle plot, and it quickly fizzles out. I would have liked to either see it developed more or removed completely to help tighten the structure of the book.
Overall I very much enjoyed Bunheads and loved the realistic – no stage magic and no pink gauze to add to the romance – look at the ballet world. There were some flaws, but it remained a good if quiet read for anyone even remotely interested in ballet or the theatre.