Backlist Review: Various Positions by Martha Schabas

Wednesday, July 22, 2015
Genre: young-adult, general fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 336 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: February 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 2/5

Nuanced, fresh, and gorgeously well-written, Martha Schabas' extraordinary debut novel takes us inside the beauty and brutality of professional ballet, and the young women striving to make it in that world. Shy and introverted, and trapped between the hyper-sexualized world of her teenaged friends and her dysfunctional family, Georgia is only at ease when she's dancing. Fortunately, she's an unusually talented and promising dancer. When she is accepted into the notoriously exclusive Royal Ballet Academy--Canada's preeminent dance school--Georgia thinks she has made the perfect escape. In ballet, she finds the exhilarating control and power she lacks elsewhere in her life: physical, emotional and, increasingly, sexual.

This dynamic is nowhere more obvious than in Georgia's relationship with Artistic Director Roderick Allen. As Roderick singles her out as a star and subjects her to increasingly vicious training, Georgia obsesses about becoming his perfect student, disciplined and sexless. But a disturbing incident with a stranger on the subway, coupled with her dawning recognition of the truth of her parents' unhappy marriage, causes her to radically reassess her ideas about physical boundaries--a reassessment that threatens both Roderick's future at the academy and Georgia's ambitions as a ballerina.

That was... odd. Weird. Uncomfortable. Utterly not what I thought I was getting: a book about ballet dancers at an exclusive academy. This made me think quite often of last year's movie Black Swan except the whole thing where ballet is not the focus at all: the sexualized teacher-student relationship, the unhealthy obsession with food and thinness, the messed-up family dynamic at home. This is not a dance book at all: this is a book masquerading as dance book, and probably even masquerading as YA as far as I'm concerned. Now, at a second glance, having read this, even the title seems like a double entendre - and not one I like.

Georgia's fixation on her ballet instructor is as unsettling as it is perplexing. Georgia is supposedly a 14-year old girl, or a Grade 9 at the academy at which she studies. Interestingly, Various Positions reads nothing like a 14-year-old girl: far too mature-sounding (especially as Georgia is very, very naive), far too educated, this reads like the thoughts of a twentysomething. Basically: Georgia expresses herself beyond the capabilties of her years: it feels false, and it was quite jarring to read about [SPOILER ALERT] a 14-year-old ballerina googling sex phrases and then studying the poses of pornstars. While it totally could, and probably has happened, it didn't read like the perspective of a bareeeely teenaged kid. END SPOILERS] I don't have an issue with the sexual aspect, or even the fact that there is a lot of focus sex within the book: sex is natural, part of every teen's life. What I do mind is how Georgia relates to all of the above. It's not believable, nor I think, accurate. I also have large issues with the message sent about girls that do have sex.

There are absolutely no healthy relationships between the characters of Various Positions. None - strained? Check. Full-out dysfunctional? Check. Secretive/mysterious? Check Shady? Checkcheckcheck. Siblings, parents, friends: all Georgia's interactions are limited by her immaturity and her selfishness. Georgia cares about Georgia, and dance and how Georgia looks while dancing. She has zero friends: the closest she comes is a charter "named" Laura. Named is in quotes because all through the novel, she is never called anything by the narrator other than her audition number from the first chapter - Sixty. Georgia's interpersonal skills are so underdeveloped she frequently and alarmingly misinterprets many actions of many, many characters throughout the book. From a man on the subway, to her dad, to her teacher, Georgia is too naive to understand basic human interaction. Georgia's parents might lend an interesting perspective on her fixation on her teacher: as Georgia slowly realizes the similar patterns between her parents history and her current situation, her delusions/justifications become intensified and more urgent. It's also easy to point out Georgia has a strained relationship with father/father-figures, as her own dad is controlling, demeaning, distant father - an attitude mirrored in Roderick's approach to Georgia at the school. I just wish either Georgia had been aged up a bit, or all the sexual undertones and themes could've been toned down. It just really didn't work for such a young protagonist [SPOILER ALERT!] or was Georgia the antagonist? He was kind of a jerk, but he is the victim here. Or his career is. Either way: no [END SPOILER].

The other ballerinas, though largely ignored so much as to be set pieces, are a piece of work. From an unhealthy and uncomfortable focus on weight - one girl, one of the few to receive their own name, is outcast and shunned because she has thicker thighs! - made it hard for me to like anyone from this 300+ page book. The repeated and recurring label of "sex girls" versus virgins/prudes to distinguish within the group also set me off a bit; here to Georgia, to Roderick, ballet is art, utterly asexual and anyone that dares own her femininity is a "sex girl" and deserving of any and all bad things sure to come her way.

This is just an odd read. Two stars for now, but it could possibly go lower the longer I think about this and just why I was so disquieted while reading. Those looking for a light YA read about ballet, look elsewere. I've added Bunheads as an alternative option in my search for a good ballet book; Various Positions missed the mark. I've had a hate-on for this for several paragraphs so I will say this: not all is bad or uncomfortable in Various Positions. The writing itself is deceptively easy to sink in; though not much happens at all throughout, this is never a boring read. I'm sad that this ended up to be such a disappointment, but this wasn't the book I thought I was getting, and I disliked the book it was.

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