Review: The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey

Monday, April 2, 2012
Author: Meg Howrey
Genre: contemporary, general fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 386 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: expected May 15, 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3.75/5

 I threw my neck out in the middle of Swan Lake last night.
So begins the tale of Kate Crane, a soloist in a celebrated New York City ballet company who is struggling to keep her place in a very demanding world. At every turn she is haunted by her close relationship with her younger sister, Gwen, a fellow company dancer whose career quickly surpassed Kate’s, but who has recently suffered a breakdown and returned home.

Alone for the first time in her life, Kate is anxious and full of guilt about the role she may have played in her sister’s collapse.  As we follow her on an insider tour of rehearsals, performances, and partners onstage and off, she confronts the tangle of love, jealousy, pride, and obsession that are beginning to fracture her own sanity. Funny, dark, intimate, and unflinchingly honest, The Cranes Dance is a book that pulls back the curtains to reveal the private lives of dancers and explores the complicated bond between sisters.

Are all ballerinas crazy? Or at least the ones being published in both YA and general adult literature? After having read the young-adult Various Positions and the more adult-centric The Cranes Dance, I have to say that all signs point to yes. Done exquisitely and ubiquitously in the 2011 movie The Black Swan, each subsequent ballet novel I've read has had a character that danced the knife of madness, talent (Various Positions's Georgia might argue the point, but trust me, I think she was crazy as a maypole..) The Cranes Dance is the slightly long-winded story of ballerina Kate Crane and her sister Gwen, also a ballerina in the same company in New York. This ended up being a lot more than expected - there's humor and warmth but also mental illness, drug abuse, self-harm and family issues. While some things weren't executed as fully as they could have been or ended up dragging on too long, this ended up surprising me with its honest emotion. This one came so close to a 4-star read, but it was slightly too long. I also really like that the title works on multiple levels: there is an actual Cranes Dance (thanks Wendy) but it also refers to the elaborate and intricate give-and-take between the two talented sisters.

Dancers may all be crazy in fiction, but they're not all as funny as Kate. My sense of humor must be similarly twisted because what Kate found funny, I found funny. This is a mixed-bag of a novel: there's some genuinely funny humor, darkness and even drug abuse - the book definitely isn't afraid to venture under the pretty makeup and leotards. I liked Kate immediately (though she did use "retarded" as a negative insult once..); her voice is fresh, lively and pretty damn amusing.... when the book beings. By about page 275, Kate's appeal had begun to break down. As the blurb suggests, Kate's hold on life and sanity waxes and wanes, and for a while things gotta kinda dull and preachy. Kate is a complex character and at least I can say she's never stagnant as a character. This is definitely not a plot-driven book (plot? what plot?) so the strength must rest on its characters, namely its principle and sole POV. Kate mostly holds up under the strain, and if this had been slightly less long, I doubt I would've been bored at all by her stream of thoughts- but I can only read so much about dance and worry and Gwen and life and rehearsal before something new/different needs to happen.

The author evidently spent a lot of time putting this together. I'm not a dancer and never have been, but the details supplied in The Cranes Dance for the ballets and choreography are minute. I didn't mind because the author doesn't get lost in the ballet aspect but keeps in touch with what attracted me to this in the first place: the complex bond between Gwen and Kate. While Kate delivers on her end of the scale, Gwen unfortunately leaves a lot to be desired. It's easy to be interested in what happened to her since it's shown more than told (yay!), but not easy or fast to invest in her character because she's such a remote character for 90% of the book - why do I care about Gwen if I know nothing about her? Though the frequent flashbacks interjected as Kate progresses show a little more to her, they usually reveal more about Kate and her state of mind <SPOILER>unreliable narrator!<spoiler> than her unstable sister.

This was good. Don't let the 3.75 out of 5 stars rating fool you - I very much enjoyed the majority of this quick read of a novel. Though it is long at 386 pages and too long for its story, The Cranes Dance is a layered and intricate look at ballerinas and sisters. Meg Howrey is impressive and her characters, especially Kate and Roger, loveable and memorable. Though I'm sure I'll read more ballet books in the nearish future, this one will stick out in memory for the unique way it handled the aspects of the story - and for Kate's sense of humor.

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