On Pointe

Georgetown LibraryStaff Picks

On Pointe

Literary Fiction about Ballet

As an art form, ballet is complex -- blending grace and power, beauty and control.

This complexity shapes the demands that ballet makes on those involved in its production, particularly dancers, as well as the rewards that they can achieve and in these many and various tensions and triumphs, there is opportunity for nuanced narratives, making the world of ballet an apt setting for Literary Fiction.

The following novels skillfully draw on this narrative potential as they depict characters whose specific circumstances differ but who share the experience of the pull of ballet.

Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson
Told in alternating chapters, the novel follows Mira Able, a preteen dancer in 1977 New York City whose emerging talent attracts the attention of older ballet enthusiast Maurice DuPont, and Kate Randell, a professor and historian of dance teaching in the present day Midwest whose life is unsettled by an affair with a student and a message from her past.

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
In 1975, young American dancer Joan Joyce helps ballet star Arslan Rusakov defect from the Soviet Union. The two become lovers, but when Joan realizes the limitations of their relationship and her career, she shifts her pursuits, marrying former boyfriend Jacob and becoming a suburban dance instructor. However, her past re-emerges when her son Harry demonstrates skill and interest in ballet.

The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey
Ballet dancer Kate Crane struggles when her sister and fellow dancer Gwen has an emotional breakdown. Less skilled than Gwen, Kate benefits professionally from her absence, but she also experiences lingering guilt and uncertainty over Gwen’s circumstances, and all is intensified further for Kate when she suffers a challenging neck injury.

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Set in Belle Époque Paris, the novel explores the lives of real-life figures the van Goethem sisters. In the wake of their father’s death, oldest sister Antoinette assists younger sisters Marie and Charlotte in entering the Paris Opera ballet school, where Marie catches the eye of Edgar Degas and ultimately becomes his model -- yet the sisters’ circumstances remain precarious.

Dancer by Colum McCann 
Real life ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev is at the center of this novel, in which the imagined voices of other real life figures such as fellow dancer Margot Fonteyn are blended with the voices of completely fictional characters to narrate the arc of Nureyev’s life -- from his birth in the Soviet Union to his international success and fame.

-- Julia S.