Book Review: Up To This Pointe by Jennifer Longo

Up to this PointeYou may be thinking, “What on earth are ballet and Antarctica doing in the same novel?”

That’s a very good question, but fortunately, Up To This Pointe, the new YA novel by the author of Six Feet Over It (review), has some very good answers.

Harper Scott has been absolutely certain about her future for her entire life. Along with her best friend Kate, Harper has a plan. Which they call The Plan. And it’s very simple: Work their butts off with constant ballet lessons and rehearsals. Graduate a semester early from high school. Audition for and get accepted by the San Francisco Ballet. Live and work together in their hometown, the best city in the world, being ballerinas and having careers doing what they love best.

There’s a small hitch: Kate is a gifted ballet dancer with the perfect ballet body and innate talent. Harper is a very good dancer who works harder than anyone and pours her heart and soul into ballet — but as she learns when she finally gets the honest talk she should have gotten years earlier, she lacks that indefinable “it” that would propel her into success and acceptance by a ballet company.

When Harper’s dreams come crashing down, she takes refuge by running away, pretty much as far as she can go.

Harper, you see, is a Scott — as in, a descendant of the famous South Pole explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Beyond the name cachet, her mother is a scientist with lots of colleagues who are willing to help out her daughter. And in the blink of an eye, Harper finagles herself into a six-month internship available to high school students, to live and work at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica during the extreme dark of a sunless winter. [Note: As the author points out in the afterword, there is no such internship. High school students would never be permitted to winter over in Antarctica — but hey, this is fiction!]

To Harper, this is a perfect solution. Her whole life has become nothing but emptiness. Her dreams and plans have amounted to nothing. Harper’s despair drives her away from her loving family, the very cute boy she’s only just started to know, and especially, from Kate and a perceived betrayal. She rushes headlong into a commitment that she can’t break until the sun rises again six months later, and meanwhile is thrust into an experience unlike anything she’s ever known.

While the idea of a ballerina at the South Pole may sound funny, Up To This Pointe works, and works well. Harper is a lovely character, with deep commitments, a strong sense of purpose, and absolute love for her family, her art, and her little ballet students who adore her madly. The book gives us a sharp picture of what life is like for an aspiring ballet dancer — the absolute commitment required, the years of training and self-denial, the toll on body and mind — and the risk that what someone devotes herself to all her life may not be what she can end up succeeding at.

The book also give us a fascinating introduction to what life at an Antarctic science station is like during the long winter months, the craziness and even illness that can be caused by winters there, and the unusual friendships and relationships that come from being marooned with a small group of people for so many months on end. Likewise, the beauty of Antarctica is lovingly described… as well as the bitter, piercing cold. The author finds a clever way to include the three most famous Antarctic explorers — Scott, Amundsen, and Shackleton — as almost spirit guides to Harper. Their stories give her hope, courage, and a way forward just when she needs it most.

Author Jennifer Longo has clearly spent a lot of time in San Francisco, as she makes the city a perfect backdrop for Harper’s world. The San Francisco of Up To This Pointe is much more than just famous bridges and crooked streets. It’s the avenues and neighborhoods and cafes and parks that Harper and her friends and family inhabit and love that really bring the city to life.

The writing in Up To This Pointe is both funny and real. There’s a lot of humor here, even as Harper deals with heartbreak and horrible loss. Her pain and inner turmoil are portrayed sensitively and realistically, and because this is a first-person narrative, we’re in Harper’s head with her as she sorts through her sorrow and desires and figures out what to do with herself.

From the book’s opening lines:

The thing about Antarctica that surprises me most? The condoms. They’re absolutely everywhere.

…to descriptions of the Antarctic sky:

Paintbrush strokes of color, flung from a palette of violet and crimson, of green and blue. Vivid, pure color, and it seems to move and shimmer, not like the pearly nacreous clouds; these are ribbons of pigment.

Aurora australis.

This is a really crazy time of year for the southern lights to show.

It’s a sign.

Of something.

… and back again to San Francisco:

Ocean Beach smells like my childhood. Sounds like my future. I breathe the salt and cold and then, nearer the park, the evergreens and cypress and juniper berry and the lawn, new soil. I’m in a tank top. No coat. The fog moves in my hair. I want to hug it.

Up To This Pointe is a sweet, fun, hopeful and highly readable story of a talented young woman figuring out what home is all about, what a Plan is for, and what matters most.


The details:

Title: Up To This Pointe
Author: Jennifer Longo
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Publication date: January 19, 2016
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Library

TV Time: Flesh and Bone

Every once in a while, I like to talk about TV. Because yes, I’m a TV watcher. And I enjoy it, dammit!

This week, I watched the first episode of Flesh and Bone, a new “limited series” on Starz… and proceeded to binge-watch all eight episodes over the weekend. Which is a lot of gritty ballet drama to absorb in a short time… but hey, I was hooked, and before I knew it, I was too far gone to stop.

So, Flesh and Bone. What’s it about?

Here’s the official trailer:

Soooo… not exactly a feel-good sort of series.

Flesh and Bone tells the story of Claire, a young woman who starts the series by running away from her family home in Pittsburgh, where clearly — judging by the padlock on her bedroom door — there are issues. Arriving in New York, Claire auditions for the American Ballet Company, and despite almost getting pitched out on her ear, she ultimately lands a position with the company.

The company is headed by Artistic Director Paul Grayson, a high-strung former dancer who demands absolute control over his dancers and who uses emotional manipulation and threats to get what he wants. While he’s initially ready to kick Claire out over a minor infraction, once he sees her dance, he realizes he has a star on his hands.

Claire, meanwhile, has to deal with living on her own in the big city, the pressure of being singled out, and the constant malicious gossip from the other members of the company.

The supporting characters include a prima ballerina, Kiira, who’s not willing to give up without a fight, Claire’s anorexic and hostile roommate Mia, and Romeo, the delusional homeless man who lives on the roof of Claire’s building, who seems to have appointed himself Claire’s protector.

All this, plus some glorious dancing, makes for riveting television.

If you’ve seen other ballet movies or TV shows, the standard ballet tropes will jump right out at you: An egomanaical artistic director. A statuesque former ballerina as the company manager. Rehearsals run by a Russian lady with a teeny dog. Catty comments from the other dancers about the new girl. Sexual tensions permeating the company. Sexual favors given and received for advancement. Sexual demands by a powerful donor. An aging prima ballerina feeling displaced by the fresh young talent.

Oh, and stripper poles. Yup. Stripper poles. (You’ll see.)

Despite some familiar themes and cliched moments, there’s also grace and power — although it’s mixed in with scenes of harsh ugliness. Still, check out the haunting opening sequence:

Doesn’t that just make you… feel?

Flesh and Bone is definitely more than meets the eye. For example, there’s a big, dark secret lurking in Claire’s past. There’s a shocking reveal at the end of the first episode — but even then, when we think we’re beginning to understand, it turns out that there’s so much more to it.

The same is true of so much about this series. You could look at Flesh and Bone as just another ballet show, but that description really doesn’t capture the full picture of what F&B is all about. I thoroughly enjoyed the complexity of the relationships, the unpredictability of the push and pull between artistic glory and human grittiness, and the lovely directing and artistry that keeps the beauty in balance with the blood and sweat.

Starz is defining Flesh and Bone and a limited run season, eight episodes and done. No second season is planned, which is too bad, as far as I’m concerned. The show does have a great ending, but I could definitely envision much more story left to tell. If Starz changes its mind and decides to do more, I’d gladly watch.

Oh, and a final fun fact: If you were a fan of Center Stage, the 2000 ballet movie, then you have one more reason to check out Flesh and Bone. Because Sascha Radetsky from Center Stage dances in F&B as well, and he’s just so… awesome.

Pausing for a moment of Center Stage nostalgia.

Pausing for a moment of Center Stage nostalgia.

(For more on the Center Stage/Flesh and Bone connection, check out this piece from Vulture.)

Have you watched Flesh and Bone yet? Do you intend to? Share your thoughts in the comments!