Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5
This is the story of Carlisle — the ballet-obsessed daughter of dancers whose perfectly tuned body is too tall (at 6’1”) for most companies. The story follows her life from a ten-year old finally reunited with her father and his new (male) partner, both at the absolute center of the dance world, to her pursuit of performance, to the eventual shift in focus of the creative urges towards classical ballet choreography (a field not only dominated by men but with no women whatsoever). We alternate between two time lines — the present day where she learns that her long-estranged father is dying; and the time 19 years past wherein the estrangement began.
The tone is intimate — we are privy to all of Carlisle’s thoughts and confusions — the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is a book of real depth, with a comprehensive view of Carlisle’s rich and complex inner life and a profound and meticulous description of the passions, drive, and motivations of both a dancer and a creator of dances. A rarity. I happen to love ballet but even if you don’t, I think you will love this story of artistic striving. Rather than just a peek, I felt as though I lived within the soul of the artist as I read this book.
Beautiful characters and a real view into a life that is certainly very different than my own. For the balletically minded, I loved the (accurate) references to Mr. B (Balanchine) and the peek into the world of New York City ballet.
The book is filled with beautifully written and insightful phrases — here are a few:
“ ‘What if you weren’t always so hard on yourself?’ a boyfriend once asked me. I agreed my being self-critical had not made me a better person, which was a clever way of being hard on myself about being hard on myself.”
“…Isabel lives for her art, and as far as she’s concerned, what makes an artist is what makes a woman: suffering, devotion, endurance. It’s more fun than it sounds. It’s safer than it sounds. Her world has rules and codes and structure. It has rewards. There are costumes and flowers. There’s a god, George Balanchine, who loves them all and gives them miraculous ballets to dance.”
“Emotions have a way of collecting and hardening inside us, like neglected grease. We are all smoking stoves.”
“Balanchine famously said there are no mothers-in-law in ballet. Meaning, it’s not an art form suited for portraying complicated family relationships, or psychological subtleties. It’s a place to get away from them, into a purer realm.”
“It’s not hard to feel you’re a good person if you ignore any semblance of an inner life.”
“In the classical repertoire, there’s a motif of large groups of women, often dressed in white, but they represent a kind of moral authority, beautiful or terrible, but not personal. You see the friendship between women only in the rehearsal room or the wings, when women are chatting or laughing or checking in with each other, released from the obligation of being divine representatives.”
“The body, which doesn’t understand time, remembers movement. Once class starts, my body falls into positions like batter filling a pan.”
Thank you to Doubleday Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 15th, 2023.