Book Review: Unmarriageable (Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan) by Soniah Kamal

 

In this one-of-a-kind retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in modern-day Pakistan, Alys Binat has sworn never to marry—until an encounter with one Mr. Darsee at a wedding makes her reconsider.

A scandal and vicious rumor concerning the Binat family have destroyed their fortune and prospects for desirable marriages, but Alys, the second and most practical of the five Binat daughters, has found happiness teaching English literature to schoolgirls. Knowing that many of her students won’t make it to graduation before dropping out to marry and have children, Alys teaches them about Jane Austen and her other literary heroes and hopes to inspire the girls to dream of more.

When an invitation arrives to the biggest wedding their small town has seen in years, Mrs. Binat, certain that their luck is about to change, excitedly sets to work preparing her daughters to fish for rich, eligible bachelors. On the first night of the festivities, Alys’s lovely older sister, Jena, catches the eye of Fahad “Bungles” Bingla, the wildly successful—and single—entrepreneur. But Bungles’s friend Valentine Darsee is clearly unimpressed by the Binat family. Alys accidentally overhears his unflattering assessment of her and quickly dismisses him and his snobbish ways. As the days of lavish wedding parties unfold, the Binats wait breathlessly to see if Jena will land a proposal—and Alys begins to realize that Darsee’s brusque manner may be hiding a very different man from the one she saw at first glance.

Told with wry wit and colorful prose, Unmarriageable is a charming update on Jane Austen’s beloved novel and an exhilarating exploration of love, marriage, class, and sisterhood.

Pride and Prejudice retellings come in so many flavors and varieties — but Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal makes it all feel new and fresh again by setting the familiar story in her native Pakistan in the early 2000s.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a girl can go from pauper to princess or princess to pauper in the mere seconds it takes for her to accept a proposal.

So begins this enchanting story. You know the basics, of course. A formerly prosperous family, rather down on their luck, has five daughters in need of husbands. Their small-town life gets a dose of excitement when a new, very eligible, very wealthy young man arrives on the scene and instantly attracts attention from all the mothers dying to make good matches for their daughters.

In Unmarriageable, the Binat family lives in the less-than-exciting town of Dilipabad. Having been cheated out of the family fortune, they’ve adapted to their reduced circumstances, and meanwhile mother Pinkie obsesses over the futures of her single daughters, exhorting them to make sure to “grab it” whenever they have a chance to meet a wealthy man. The oldest two sisters, Jena and Alysba (Alys) teach English at a private school for girls. In their early 30s, the sisters are practically over the hill, but Pinkie has not given up on them just yet. When the family is invited to the big society event — the NadirFiede wedding — it’s another opportunity to find eligible men for the girls to make “you-you eyes” at.

Alys, our main character, is smart and independent, not willing to accede to her mother’s insistence on marriage as the be-all and end-all of a woman’s purpose. She loves her family and her friends, loves to read and think, and is not about to pursue a man or agree to a match because it’s expected or provides access to a fortune. At the wedding, she and Jena meet Bungles, a lovely young man who’s instantly smitten with Jena, but his friend Darsee is rude and stand-offish, and Alys takes an immediate loathing to him.

We all know where the story goes, right? Unmarriageable hits all the major marks of the Pride and Prejudice story, but the Pakistani setting keeps it fun and different. Some retellings just don’t work within a 21st century timeframe, because the emphasis on social standing and marrying for money doesn’t necessarily translate well in a way that makes sense. Here, though, we’re led to understand that among the upper class society circles (and those longing for acceptance into those circles), the pursuit of successful marriages is everything. It’s really entertaining to see the traditional butting up against the modern, whether through the descriptions of the clothing, the marriage rituals, or the expectations for women to fulfill their prescribed roles in respectable society.

I loved the introduction to Pakistani culture — the foods, music, clothing, literature, and unique ways that the English and Pakistani languages are interwoven. The use of close-but-not-exact names to mirror Austen’s characters is really clever too.

My only minor quibble is that it doesn’t quite work for me to have an Austen retelling in which the characters read Jane Austen! In many of the modern-day retellings I’ve read, it’s never acknowledged that the original stories even exist. But here, in Unmarriageable, Alys teachers Pride and Prejudice in her English classes, and returns again and again to thinking about Austen’s themes. So given that, how does she understand her own life and the people in it — sisters Jena, Mari, Qitty, and Lady; her suitor Kaleen; Darsee and his sister Jujeena; and the dastardly Mr. Jeorgeullah Wickaam? Wouldn’t you think she’d end up in some sort of existential crisis, wondering if she really exists or if she’s just a character in a book?

That silliness aside, I do love the writing in this story, which captures some of the archness and intelligence we’d expect in a P&P retelling:

The clinic was an excellent facility, as all facilities that cater to excellent people tend to be, because excellent people demand excellence, unlike those who are grateful for what they receive.

The story doesn’t dwell on serious matters for too long, but there are little moments that let us know that the lives of women are particularly fraught at that time, and that the issues facing women go well beyond securing a rich husband:

She grabbed the newspaper no one had opened yet and flipped through the usual news of honor killings, dowry burnings, rapes, blasphemy accusations, sectarian violence, corruption scandals, tax evasions, and the never-ending promises by vote-grubbing politician to fix the country.

But overall, there’s plenty of lightness and joy to go around:

Alys laughed. “O’Connor, Austen, Alcott, Wharton. Characters’ emotions and situations are universally applicable across cultures, whether you’re wearing an empire dress, shalwar kurta, or kimono.”

And finally, something that I know will ring true for all the booklovers out there:

It was a truth universally acknowledged, Alys suddenly thought with a smile, that people enter our lives in order to recommend reads.

It’s my pleasure to recommend Unmarriageable! If you love Austen and are ready for a new take on a well-loved story, definitely check this one out!

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The details:

Title: Unmarriageable
Author: Soniah Kamal
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: January 22, 2019
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: The Wartime Sisters by Lynda Cohen Loigman

 

Two estranged sisters, raised in Brooklyn and each burdened with her own shocking secret, are reunited at the Springfield Armory in the early days of WWII. While one sister lives in relative ease on the bucolic Armory campus as an officer’s wife, the other arrives as a war widow and takes a position in the Armory factories as a “soldier of production.” Resentment festers between the two, and secrets are shattered when a mysterious figure from the past reemerges in their lives.

The Wartime Sisters is the second novel by Lynda Cohen Loigman, whose debut novel The Two-Family House came out in 2016 (reviewed here). Both books focus on women’s lives during the 20th century, and both examine the intricate relationships between sisters, friends, and the people who come into their lives.

In The Wartime Sisters, Millie and Ruth couldn’t be more different. Ruth is three years older than Millie, and spends her entire childhood and adolescence hearing about her sister’s beauty and charm. Millie is the one their mother pins her hopes on, fantasizing about how the endless crowd of suitors will yield the perfect man to propose to Millie and make all her dreams come true. Meanwhile, Ruth grows up realizing that she’ll never be the pretty one, and resents Millie for always being the center of attention… never stopping to ask herself if Millie actually wants or enjoys the attention that comes her way.

The story flashes back and forth between the late 1930s, as the girls approach womanhood, and 1942/1943, as they settle into life at an army base in Massachusetts. We learn over time how they came to be there, and how they became so estranged from one another following their parents’ death.

Interwoven throughout their chapters on their earlier years is a nice evocation of Jewish life in Brooklyn at that time, showing the ways in which the family’s religion and culture define their world, their friends, and their approaches to life. Meanwhile, in Springfield, both Millie and Ruth form new bonds among the military wives and base workers, who represent a different but no less vibrant sort of community.

The Wartime Sisters shows the damage done to women’s souls through neglect and abuse, and also by the small and large cruelties carried out through resentment and gossip. In Springfield, we meet two additional women who fill large roles in the sisters’ new lives: Lillian, the base commander’s wife, with her own troubled childhood, is a pillar of strength and goodness amidst the turmoil; and Arietta, a motherly woman with a talent for both singing and cooking, takes Millie under her wing.

It’s sad to see the conflict between Ruth and Millie. As Ruth’s husband is sent overseas as a wartime scientist and Millie arrives, husband-less, impoverished, and burdened by secrets, it would seem that the two women finally have an opportunity to reclaim their relationship and establish a new closeness. Sadly, although Ruth offers a home to Millie, the warmth and ease that should come with it is missing. While the author lets us see why Ruth feels as she does and how her resentments built over time, it’s still hard to empathize. As far as we can see, Millie has never done anything wrong, has never set out to hurt Ruth or to undermine her. Ruth blames Millie for the incessant comparisons unkind neighbors have made all their lives, but it’s clearly just so unfair. Because of Ruth’s animosity, Millie is left to deal with their parents’ death on her own, and makes some calamitous decisions that bring about hardship and suffering. It’s hard to forgive Ruth for what she put Millie through.

In terms of the historical settings, I enjoyed learning about the Springfield Armory and the role women played in wartime readiness and production. The characters are colorful and memorable, and Arietta in particular is a delight to meet.

Overall, I found The Wartime Sisters to be moving and engaging. The story is crisp and nicely constructed, and the length means that it never feel draggy. I enjoyed the exploration of Ruth and Millie’s relationship, and despite being super annoyed with Ruth for much of the story, I thought the build-up of their history together and the explanation of all the baggage they carry with them was really effective and realistic.

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The details:

Title: The Wartime Sisters
Author: Lynda Cohen Loigman
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: January 22, 2019
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Take A Peek Book Review: The Accidental Beauty Queen by Teri Wilson

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Charlotte Gorman loves her job as an elementary school librarian, and is content to experience life through the pages of her books. Which couldn’t be more opposite from her identical twin sister. Ginny, an Instagram-famous beauty pageant contestant, has been chasing a crown since she was old enough to enunciate the words world peace, and she’s not giving up until she gets the title of Miss American Treasure. And Ginny’s refusing to do it alone this time.

She drags Charlotte to the pageant as a good luck charm, but the winning plan quickly goes awry when Ginny has a terrible, face-altering allergic reaction the night before the pageant, and Charlotte suddenly finds herself in a switcheroo the twins haven’t successfully pulled off in decades.

Woefully unprepared for the glittery world of hair extensions, false eyelashes, and push-up bras, Charlotte is mortified at every unstable step in her sky-high stilettos. But as she discovers there’s more to her fellow contestants than just wanting a sparkly crown, Charlotte realizes she has a whole new motivation for winning.

My Thoughts:

This is a fun, light read — just enough thoughtfulness to offset the goofiness of spray tans, bedazzled ballgowns, and parading in front of judges in a bikini. Charlotte describes her sister Ginny as the “pretty one” — the Meg to her Jo, the Jane to her Lizzie — but in reality, they’re identical twins. There isn’t really a prettier sister — it’s all about self-image and what each sister does with her looks and her talents.

Charlotte is delightfully bookish and nerdy, dropping Harry Potter lines at a moment’s notice, thrilled at the idea of picking up a sorting hat to bring back to the children’s library where she works. Ginny is Instagram-famous and seemingly all about the looks. By having to literally walk in Ginny’s shoes, Charlotte of course learns that there’s more to her sister’s world than she thought, and also discovers elements of herself that she’d buried for years.

It’s all a bit silly and full of wish-fulfillment. In reality, could someone new to pageant life pull off a successful impersonation of an experienced, trained competitor? Does it make any sense that Charlotte could come up with a talent act that not only works, but wins? Of course not.

Still, it’s fun to see Charlotte apply her geekiness to the pursuit of a crown for her sister. Not unpredictably, everything ends up going wrong, but the sisters’ relationship is strengthened by it all. An unnecessary love story adds a romantic element to the plot, but it really doesn’t need to be there.

On the plus side, The Accidental Beauty Queen is a good reminder that all choices are valid, and that women who compete in pageants are not by default shallow mean girls. The book shows the individuality of many of the competitors and allows them to emerge as strong women rather than as stereotypes. Likewise, we see that there are some worthy causes associated with the pageant world, including a fictional organization that mirrors some real-life organizations that organize pageants for disabled, ill, and special needs youth, enabling them to feel proud and beautiful and deserving of appreciation.

I’ve never been interested in pageants (and would have said that I’m turned off by the idea of being judged based on appearances). My overall feelings haven’t changed, but this book did help me see another side. The twin-switch is definitely unrealistic, but it’s a fun bit of fantasy that makes the book an easy, entertaining read.

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The details:

Title: The Accidental Beauty Queen
Author: Teri Wilson
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: December 4, 2018
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Gallery Books and NetGalley

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Book Review: The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

 

Captivating and boldly imaginative, with a tale of sisterhood at its heart, Rena Rossner’s debut fantasy invites you to enter a world filled with magic, folklore, and the dangers of the woods.

Raised in a small village surrounded by vast forests, Liba and Laya have lived a peaceful sheltered life – even if they’ve heard of troubling times for Jews elsewhere. When their parents travel to visit their dying grandfather, the sisters are left behind in their home in the woods.

But before they leave, Liba discovers the secret that their Tati can transform into a bear, and their Mami into a swan. Perhaps, Liba realizes, the old fairy tales are true. She must guard this secret carefully, even from her beloved sister.

Soon a troupe of mysterious men appear in town and Laya falls under their spell-despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. And these are not the only dangers lurking in the woods…

The sisters will need each other if they are to become the women they need to be – and save their people from the dark forces that draw closer.

What a lovely and unusual debut novel!

Author Rena Rossner draws from folktales, fairy tales, and Jewish history and traditions to create an entrancing story of two sisters whose lives are informed by magic, yet who are deeply rooted among the Jewish villagers in the small town of Dubossary (located in modern-day Moldova).

Liba and Laya are very different — Liba, the elder, is 17 years old, with wild, dark hair and a rounded body. She loves to study with her father, learning Torah and Talmud and all sorts of scholarly Jewish subjects not considered fit for girls. Laya, the younger, is 15 years old, with white-blond silky hair, pale skin, and a lithe figure. She has no interest in studies, but prefers to dream in the sun, alongside their beautiful mother. The girls’ parents are semi-outcasts. While the father was descended from a respectable, revered Chassidic family, the mother is a non-Jew who converted to Judaism when she married the man she loved, yet the neighbors have never ceased to gossip and consider her an outsider.

When the parents are called away for a family emergency, the girls are left home alone in their small cabin at the edge of the forest, and immediately, strange things begin to happen around them. A group of brothers come to town and set up their fruit stall, selling exotic, exquisite out-of-season fruits that the townspeople can’t resist — and beguiling the young women of the village with their impossible good looks and flirtatious, wild demeanors. Liba and Laya have been told secrets by their parents about their own true identities, and each begins to experience her own set of changes — physical and emotional — as she grows into womanhood.

Meanwhile, there are rumors in the village of violence coming closer, as anti-Semitism rears its ugly head and pogroms begin to devastate Jewish communities across Russia. Dubossary has always been different, with Jews and Christians living in harmony, but when a beautiful Christian girl is found murdered in a Jewish family’s orchard, unrest, evil whispers, and soon real danger threatens the Jewish people of the town.

If the plot sounds a little jam-packed — well, it is. There’s a lot going on here, with Liba and Laya’s secrets and struggles, the mysterious fruitsellers and their addictive wares, the rising anti-Semitism, and the dynamics of Chassidic dynasties as well. Beyond plot, though, there are also so many little touches of loveliness. The book is filled with Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian expressions (with a handy glossary at the end) that give the story an authentic, rich cadence. Likewise, the flavors and textures of this world come to life through the descriptions of the foods (borscht, mandelbrot, kugel, and more), the flowers and plants, the wildlife, and the natural beauty of the snow, the river, and the forest.

Each girl has her own voice, as we hear in alternating chapters. Liba’s chapters are in prose, and Laya’s are in verse. Each is compelling, and while Liba’s chapters are much more action-packed and immediate, Laya’s have a lightness that’s quite beautiful to read.

Come by, he calls out
after me,
come by, come by.
When moonlight sets itself high in the sky.

Sometimes the author’s notes at the end of a story really give me a different way to understand what I’ve read, and such is the case here with The Sisters of the Winter Wood. In her notes, author Rena Rossner describes her own family’s history in the region of the story and their immigration to America. She also explains the various sources of inspiration for her story, from fairy tales, Greek mythology, and even modern YA literature. She also mentions that the original idea for this book was to write a retelling of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market (which can be read online here) After I finished reading The Sisters of the Winter Wood, I went and read Goblin Market (which I’d never read before), and was so impressed by how well its elements are captured and transformed in Rena Rossner’s book. (I also discovered the connection between Goblin Market and the October Daye series, but that’s another topic entirely.)

Naturally, between the setting and the introduction of folktale elements, I was reminded of Katherine Arden’s excellent The Bear and the Nightingale, although the stories are very, very different. Fans of that book should definitely check out The Sisters of the Winter Wood. It’s a magical story filled with beauty and awfulness, balancing real and fantasy worlds, and above all celebrating the love between two devoted sisters and the sacrifices they make for one another. Highly recommended!

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The details:

Title: The Sisters of the Winter Wood
Author: Rena Rossner
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: September 25, 2018
Length: 464 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of Redhook

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Book Review: Odd & True

Trudchen grew up hearing Odette’s stories of their monster-slaying mother and a magician’s curse. But now that Tru’s older, she’s starting to wonder if her older sister’s tales were just comforting lies, especially because there’s nothing fantastic about her own life—permanently disabled and in constant pain from childhood polio.

In 1909, after a two-year absence, Od reappears with a suitcase supposedly full of weapons and a promise to rescue Tru from the monsters on their way to attack her. But it’s Od who seems haunted by something. And when the sisters’ search for their mother leads them to a face-off with the Leeds Devil, a nightmarish beast that’s wreaking havoc in the Mid-Atlantic states, Tru discovers the peculiar possibility that she and her sister—despite their dark pasts and ordinary appearances—might, indeed, have magic after all.

I became oddly (*snort* ODDly!) enchanted by this story of two sisters, although it was less the magical storytelling that captured me, but rather the relationship between Od and Tru and the secrets that lay between them.

I went into Odd & True with somewhat false expectations, based on early synopses and the cover picture. I definitely expected something about monster hunters! Instead, Odd & True is more complicated and nuanced than I would have thought, and ultimately conveys some lovely sentiments about family and belonging.

Od and Tru, when we first meet them, live in a plain Oregon home with their straight-laced, strict Aunt Viktoria and her husband William. Od is five years older than Tru, and has been Tru’s protector since both their parents left them years earlier. Tru suffers terrible pain in her leg as a result of polio as a toddler, and to distract her from her suffering, Od tells Tru stories of their past. She tells her the story of the day of her birth, when she was born in a castle and her uncle the magician came to visit, stories about their mother setting out to battle monsters in the deep, dark woods, and stories of their artist father traveling the world to seek his fortune.

Tru believes it all, and grows up with no doubt that monsters exist in the world, and must be warded off by charms and amulets and spells, as well as by the special monster-hunting weapons in the family’s special traveling case.

In alternating chapters, we get the sisters’ views of their world… and once we start hearing from Odette, it becomes increasingly clear that the magical tales she spins for Tru are just a sugar-coated version of the darker truths of their childhood and their parents’ lives.

As the story progressed, I became more and more engrossed in Odette’s part of the story, and perhaps as a consequence, I found it harder to buy into Tru’s view of life and her fantastical belief in myths and legends. Still, I really appreciated the sisters’ devotion to one another, and the various threads do come together nicely by the end.

I had a hard time getting truly caught up in the story at first, but gradually it grabbed me, and I ended up liking it very much. I really admire the way the author weaves together the two viewpoints to create a picture of a family that’s mired it its own myths.

I’ve decided I’d rather be foolish than ordinary. I’d rather risk chasing monsters that might not exist, searching for [deleted spoiler] I’m not meant to find, than to believe we’re nothing more than mundane creatures, steeped in ordinary lives… Please trust me when I insist that it is too soon for you to turn your back on spellbinding wonders.

Odd & True is the story of two young women who refuse to let their lives be dictated by what they “should” be and do. It’s about taking risks and being brave, facing danger even when you feel weak, and not letting anyone put you into a box. It’s quite a lovely read, and I think fans of Cat Winters, as well as those new to her wonderful books, will enjoy Odd & True very much.

Interested in this author? Check out these additional reviews:
The Uninvited
The Cure for Dreaming
In the Shadow of Blackbirds
The Steep & Thorny Way

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The details:

Title: Odd & True
Author: Cat Winters
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: September 12, 2017
Length: 358 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

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Take a Peek Book Review: Lizzy & Jane

A quick note: I thought I’d try out a new book review format! My “Take a Peek” reviews will be short and (I hope) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little “peek” at what the book’s about and what I thought. Tell me if you like!

Lizzy and Jane

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Lizzy and Jane never saw eye to eye. But when illness brings them together, they discover they may be more like Austen’s famous sisters after all.

Lizzy was only a teenager when her mother died of cancer. Shortly after, Lizzy fled from her home, her family, and her cherished nickname. After working tirelessly to hone her gift of creating magic in the kitchen, Elizabeth has climbed the culinary ladder to become the head chef of her own New York restaurant, Feast. But as her magic begins to elude her, Paul, Feast’s financial backer, brings in someone to share her responsibilities and her kitchen. So Elizabeth flees again.

In a desperate attempt to reconnect with her gift, Elizabeth returns home. But her plans are derailed when she learns that her estranged sister, Jane, is battling cancer. Elizabeth surprises everyone—including herself—when she decides to stay in Seattle and work to prepare healthy, sustaining meals for Jane as she undergoes chemotherapy. She also meets Nick and his winsome son, Matt, who, like Elizabeth, are trying to heal from the wounds of the past.

As she tends to Jane’s needs, Elizabeth’s powers begin to return to her, along with the family she left behind so long ago. Then Paul tries to entice her back to New York, and she is faced with a hard decision: stay and become Lizzy to her sister’s Jane, or return to New York and the life she worked so hard to create?

My Thoughts:

Lizzy & Jane is both sad and hopeful, a look at two sisters who have a seemingly impassable chasm between them after years of resentment, estrangement, and loneliness. Elizabeth is adrift in the world; she thinks that she’s put her painful family history behind her and that she’s found success as a top New York chef, but as the story opens, she’s forced to admit that her life just isn’t working any more.

Reunited with her sister and her father, Elizabeth slowly starts to find joy in her cooking again, as she cares for her sister, her sister’s kids, and even the other chemo patients she meets while keeping Jane company. As Elizabeth begins to open herself up to forgiveness and reconciliation, she finds her life taking on new meaning and finds a passion and purpose that she didn’t even know she needed.

I loved how neatly the author ties together literature and cooking in this lovely (and delicious) novel. I’m not a foodie, but even I appreciated Lizzy’s knack for understanding a person’s food tastes based on what they love to read. I don’t know if I’m quite convinced that it would work in real life, but in the context of fiction, it’s simply inspired!

Overall, I really enjoyed Lizzy & Jane. The main character is flawed and wounded, and it’s lovely to see her reconnect with her sister and rediscover herself in the process. The love story is a tad predictable, but still delicious in its own way. The portrayal of the fraught relationship between the sisters feels realistic and sensitive, and I couldn’t help cheering for the characters (and occasionally wanting to give them a little kick to get them talking again!). Filled with real emotion, satisfying personal growth, and a group of supporting characters who each add a little spice to the story, Lizzy & Jane is a great choice for anyone looking for a book to make you feel.

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The details:

Title: Lizzy & Jane
Author: Katherine Reay
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Publication date: October 28, 2014
Length: 339 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Thomas Nelson via NetGalley

 

Book Review: The Cranes Dance

Book Review: The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey

Reading a book about ballet dancers is a bit like studying anthropology or reading fiction set in an exotic land. Ballet is a world and a culture unto itself, with its own customs, morals, standards, language, costumes, and rituals. Those at the peak of the profession form an insular little society, truly an alien species in the eyes of the non-ballet world — and even more so, the “normal” world, to the ballet elite, is foreign, slightly unpleasant, and unrelentingly ordinary.

So it would seem, in any case, from reading The Cranes Dance, an excellent but disturbing peek into the world of a top New York City ballet company, as told by main character Kate Crane — whose perspective may not be all that reliable. Kate is in her late-ish 20s, and has been with the Company since she was a rising teen ballet student. Kate is a lovely and talented dancer, but her younger sister Gwen is a star. Gwen joins the Company a year after Kate, but is made a principal (a prima ballerina, if you will) at the same time that Kate, with more years of experience, is raised from the corps to soloist (a featured dancer, performing good roles, but definitely not the star of the show). But it’s all okay, because Kate is devoted to Gwen, and from day one sees her as someone to be nurtured and cherished, whose gift must be protected and encouraged above all else.

As The Cranes Dance opens, Kate is on her own in New York for the first time in a decade, after having called her parents in Michigan to report that Gwen has had a nervous breakdown. Gwen has been scooped up and taken away by the parents, and Kate is left to deal with her grief, her guilt, and deep down, her relief at being free for once in her life. Unfortunately, Kate has perfected the skill of not dealing. She’s made a career of keeping everyone at arm’s length, never admitting that she has needs or wants, and finds herself adrift.

Unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend (she never let him be there for her, apparently), Kate moves into Gwen’s now empty apartment, and more or less into Gwen’s life. She lives amongst Gwen’s things, she wears Gwen’s clothes and uses Gwen’s hair products, and before long, she’s dancing roles meant for Gwen as well. Friends and colleagues tell Kate that she’s never danced better, and the company director comments that it’s been hard “to watch you diminish yourself” — implying, perhaps, that Kate’s devotion to Gwen has kept her from letting herself shine on her own.

But has Kate also taken over Gwen’s mental deterioration? Warning signs abound. After a neck injury, Kate turns to Vicodin to numb the pain — and soon, to numb everything else. Like Gwen, Kate is unable to sleep and loses weight due to lack of appetite. Kate narrates her life for the audience she imagines constantly watching her, as if being on stage is a shield against the dangers and disappointments of actual living. Inhabiting Gwen’s home, all alone, Kate is left to stare at the mysterious and disturbing tape marks and secret notes and symbols that Gwen used as talismans against fear, her secret obsessive-compulsive safety nets. Can Kate be strong where Gwen could not? Can Kate numb the pain indefinitely, or will her world come crashing down as well?

I enjoyed The Cranes Dance a great deal. According to her website, “Meg Howrey is a classically trained dancer who has performed with the Joffrey, Los Angeles Opera, and City Ballet of Los Angeles.” Clearly, this is a writer who knows the world she so keenly describes. The first-person narration gives us a front-row view of the workings of Kate’s mind, and she can be hilariously funny at times, despite the physical and emotional pain that accompany her throughout her days.

Crisp, delicious writing abounds, such as this passage in which Kate must suffer through drinks with a smile:

“Oh, but I love The Nutcracker,” began the [woman], and then launched into the familiar non-dancer girl talking to dancer girl conversation. “Do your toes bleed?” “I had a friend/cousin/neighbor who danced who was really serious about her dancing until she got too tall/hurt her knee/went to college.” “You must not be able to eat anything.” “It must take a lot of discipline, I can’t even imagine doing what you do.” “All the men are gay, right?”

The book opens with Kate describing the plot of Swan Lake, which is the headlining production in the company’s performance season. It’s much too much to quote in full, but this little snippet gives a good sense of the tone as well as Kate’s unique perspective on dance and life in general:

Act I opens in the village green of an unspecified, vaguely German realm. We’re a little hazy on the time period too. It’s Days of Yore, I guess, in the yore when everyone in pseudo Germany wandered around their village green in nearly identical outfits… Anyway A Village Green Scene is standard issue for classical ballet, and if you’ve seen one circlet of peasant-dancing hoo-ha, you’ve seen them all. There’s a garland dance and a Maypole and a lot of people standing around fake clapping or pointing out to each other that other people are dancing in the middle of the stage… So everyone just wanders around greeting each other with head nods if you’re a girl and shoulder thumping if you’re a guy, and then one person will indicate Center Stage like “Hey, did you see? There are people dancing! Isn’t that neat!” And the other person will make a gesture like “Yes! Dancing. It is happening there!”

And so on. It’s fun, it’s funny, it often terribly sad, and it’s frequently disturbing. At the same time, Kate’s voice is engaging — even when she’s being obnoxious — and you can’t help but want to shake her a bit and get her to just, you know, snap out of it! You’re a ballerina! Enjoy yourself!

Go ahead, hum a few bars. Pirouettes are allowed too.

The glimpse into the backstage life of a ballet company is deliciously exotic. The endless classes and rehearsals, the jockeying for positions and good partners, the little slips that can spell disaster, the triumphs of a perfect gesture — all these are brought to life so vividly that you can hear the toe shoes landing after a jump. I dare you to read this book and not spend the next few days humming Swan Lake as you  move, oh so gracefully, down the busy streets, perhaps with visions of tutus dancing in your head.

Whether you read The Cranes Dance as a story of sisters, a narrative of mental illness, a profile of a person shut off from the world, or just for the joy of the behind-the-scenes glamour and excitement, I do believe you’ll be as entranced by the book as I was. You don’t have to be a ballet fan to enjoy The Cranes Dance — but you’ll probably want to dig out those old The Turning Point or White Nights videos by the time you’re done.