Ballet is about relationships

Book Review: Off Balance by Terez Mertes Rose

Off Balance (Ballet Theatre Chronicles Book 1)Off Balance by Terez Mertes Rose
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I might not have read this book if I didn’t know the author online, but I am glad I did. It is fascinating and well crafted, with relatable characters and an satisfying plot.

The book is about two ballet dancers at different stages in their careers: Alice is a former soloist who sustained a career-ending injury and now works in arts administration. Lana, a young newcomer, has just joined the company where Alice used to dance. The book follows their unlikely friendship as they wrestle with their own inner demons and their significant relationships with men and with their mothers.

I loved that this book was set in San Francisco, since I have just moved to the SF Bay Area recently myself. I found the setting realistic and compellingly written. The book teases by making you think it’s going to be a delicious gossipy behind-the-scenes romp, like “Mozart in the Jungle” but with ballet. And it is that. Wine and cocaine flow freely. There is sex, too, although most of it is off-stage and tastefully described.

What makes this book rise above the tabloid level is the way the author gets into her characters’ heads and makes their questionable choices and actions believable and even sympathetic. I especially loved the portrayal of the two lead female characters, Alice and Lana. I will not say I loved the characters themselves, because I didn’t. I doubt I would have gotten along with either of them very well in real life, and more than once I was angered or puzzled by the choices they made or by the way they treated other people. It is a sign of how good a writer the author is, though, that she made me care very much about these characters in spite of myself.

Alice comes across as a bit of an emotional wreck at first, an accident waiting to happen. She has never fully healed from the injury that ended her dancing career, especially not emotionally. Although her addictions are not directly labeled as such, she is shown realistically struggling with alcoholism and substance abuse while holding down a seemingly powerful and glamorous job. The fact that she will not watch ballet anymore since the injury is a nice touch; in the hands of a lesser writer that situation could have come across as cliched and overdramatic, but instead it is used deftly at the novel’s climax as a way to illustrate and deepen the friendship between Alice and Lana. Lana’s relationship with her manipulative and mentally ill mother is also strikingly and poignantly rendered without descending into cliches.

The book’s biggest strength is its depiction of the relationships between women: women as friends, mentors, and rivals; mothers and daughters. The male characters come across as less successful to me, although I’d be happy to hear a man’s opinion on this. Let’s just say the three main male characters are these: 1. an impossibly handsome playboy and boy toy who falls in sincere, genuine love for the first time, with Lana; 2. an enigmatic billionaire patron of the arts who always comes through with the cash when a woman needs him to; and 3. the perfect, patient-but-fun, dependable, long-suffering, caring and forgiving boyfriend with a British name. These guys are great fun to read about, but they only exist in romance novels. And there is a romance novel quality to this book: it has a fairy-tale happy ending on more than one level. This is fitting for a novel about an art form whose main currency is fairy tales.

The mention of fairy tales brings me to my last thought, which is more about me than it is about the book. The author clearly loves ballet more than I do. She is a former dancer herself, and her experience lends the book its atmosphere and attention to detail. And I think one would have to be a dancer in order to convincingly write about characters for whom ballet means as much as life itself.

I took ballet lessons for several years as a child; I was quite untalented. In particular, I was not even close to flexible enough to enable my legs to assume the necessary positions. For example, I could never do a split; could never lift my leg up high enough to do the steps and lifts that ballet dancers do onstage. It wasn’t just painful for me to try, it was impossible. There is a passage in the book that describes Lana ripping a blister open on one of her feet and still having to dance en point, right on the blister. Sweat pours into the wound, making it more painful. Blood ruins a pair of new ballet shoes. I never got as far as en pointe, I quit before that was even an option. But I still kind of cringe mentally at the thought of it, like thinking of fingernails on a blackboard. I found this book worth reading for that angle alone: to understand, if only for an afternoon, why people do things like that to themselves, and how it could ever possibly be worth it.

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