10 ballet novels [for adults] you’ll love

Book 2 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles, Outside the Limelight, is a Kirkus Indie Books of the Month selection for Jan 2017! Celebrating with a $2.99 sale HERE

photo by Jordan Matter

photo by Jordan Matter

For a long time, “ballet fiction” meant the books that catered to young girls, slim tomes with pink, appealing covers. Noel Streatfeild’s more substantial and highly popular Ballet Shoes comprised my ballet fiction-reading youth. I adored the book. I compensated for its lack of competition by reading it over and over, annually, through my youth and adolescence, until the trashy romantic fiction genre caught my eye and stole my attention for {{winces}} well over a decade. What can I say? I love the ballet world’s theatricality and glamour, its dangerous, seductive glitter, and ballet fiction for adults just didn’t exist. Fast forward two dozen years. The movie Black Swan happened. The equally compelling documentaries, First Position and Ballerina happened. And suddenly I wasn’t the only adult wanting to read ballet fiction.

I should clarify something about this Top 10 list. While I’m calling it ballet fiction, it doesn’t mean it has to take place in a ballet studio or theater (or necessarily be classical ballet, for that matter). In Outside the Limelight, one ballet dancer narrator spends nearly the whole story offstage, in doctors’ offices, out in the “real” world with new non-dancer friends and ideas. The Art of Falling uses flashback to reference the narrator’s actual performing days, and chronicles instead her slow, treacherous journey to finding wholeness beyond her lifelong relationship with dance, its dark hold, the mix of slavish love and despair its presence conjured. Likewise, Girl Through Glass features one narrator (of two) who is a dance historian and professor, steering clear of the dance performance world in a way of avoiding her own dark past within it. The thing connecting these ten books is that all the narrators are dancers at their core. The craft, and the scars the lifetime commitment has yielded, have made these characters who they are. And who they are runs very, very deep.

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Without further ado, here are The Classical Girl’s favorite and recommended ballet novels (and one short story collection), in no particular order:

  1. Girl Through Glass, Sari Wilson
  2. The True Memoirs of Little K: A Novel, Adrienne Sharp
  3. The Art of Falling, Kathryn Craft
  4. The Cranes Dance, Meg Howrey
  5. Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead
  6. White Swan, Black Swan: Stories, Adrienne Sharp
  7. The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan
  8. Ballerina, Edward Stewart
  9. First Love (also released as The Sleeping Beauty), Adrienne Sharp
  10. Off Balance, Terez Mertes Rose

You’ll find each novel’s description further down. In the meantime, here’s a nifty chart. I don’t know about you, but when I hear about a new ballet fiction book, I want to know, is it dark and dramatic or breezy/funny? (Or, as in The Cranes Dance, both.) Is it a literary voice (Girl Through Glass, First Love) or does it have more of an old fashion storytelling voice, the kind of book that you can sink into and lusciously inhabit another world for the afternoon (Astonish Me, Ballerina)? Is it deeply immersed in the ballet world (Ballerina, First Love) or is the dance world somewhat peripheral to the story at hand (The Art of Falling and half of Girl Through Glass)? Do issues relevant to women and relationships—self-acceptance, the power of healing and/or the power of friendship—come up? (The Art of Falling, Off Balance, Girl Through Glass) So, here you go. All nicely spliced up to help you pick out that next favorite ballet read. I hope it’s okay with you that I included my own ballet novel, Off Balance. And I’ve also included, in the chart below, its follow-up, Outside the Limelight, forthcoming in October, so that you can see what category it will fall into.

Historical fiction
The True Memoirs of Little K: A Novel
The Painted Girls

Balanchine era, ‘70’s New York (“Historical-ish” Fiction)
Girl Through Glass (half the story)
Ballerina
First Love
Astonish Me (First section)
White Swan, Black Swan (select stories)

Edgy
Girl Through Glass
White Swan, Black Swan: Stories
The Cranes Dance
The Art of Falling
First Love (warning: gets dark & rather depressing)

Fun, beach read
Astonish Me
Ballerina (warning: grows a bit over-the-top dramatic and a little annoying. Published in 1979.)
Off Balance

Literary
White Swan, Black Swan
Girl Through Glass
The Art of Falling
The Painted Girls
First Love

Humorous slant
The Cranes Dance
Off Balance 

Women’s fiction (themes of self-query, acceptance of the past, healing)
Girl Through Glass
The Art of Falling
Outside the Limelight
The Cranes Dance
Off Balance

Sisters
The Cranes Dance
The Painted Girls
Outside the Limelight 

Powerfully drawn characters you will never, never forget
The Art of Falling
The Cranes Dance
Girl Through Glass

Friendship
Ballerina
Off Balance
The Art of Falling

Sexy (or erotic-tinged) scenes
First Love
Ballerina
Off Balance

Set mostly in the ballet world
Ballerina
The Cranes Dance
White Swan, Black Swan: Stories
First Love

Uses the dance world as the launch pad for a broader story and theme
Girl Through Glass (half the story)
The Art of Falling
Off Balance
Outside the Limelight
The Painted Girls

This Top 10 list does not take into account the quality young adult ballet novels out there, which seem to be increasing in number with each passing year. Yay! Maybe some day I will create a “10 Best YA Ballet Fiction” list. In the meantime, if you’re a crossover reader into YA, or if you have daughters/nieces who love ballet stories, it’s worth checking out works by the following authors: Sophie Flack (Bunheads), Miriam Wenger Landis (Girl in Motion and Breaking Pointe), Grier Cooper (Hope and Wish) and Nancy Lorenz (The Strength of Ballerinas and American Ballerina).

The following book descriptions are courtesy of Amazon. I just about blew a mental gasket trying to come up with ten summaries of my own, and halfway through, I gave up and dumped all fifteen pages out all by the cyber-roadside. I’d rather talk for pages about how a book makes me feel versus trying to summarize it in two neat paragraphs. I’d rather have oral surgery than attempt it ten times. Click on the book’s title to go to its Amazon page and read an excerpt.

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Girl Through Glass, Sari Wilson
In the roiling summer of 1977, eleven-year-old Mira is an aspiring ballerina in the romantic, highly competitive world of New York City ballet. Enduring the mess of her parent’s divorce, she finds escape in dance—the rigorous hours of practice, the exquisite beauty, the precision of movement, the obsessive perfectionism. Ballet offers her control, power, and the promise of glory. It also introduces her to forty-seven-year-old Maurice DuPont, a reclusive, charismatic balletomane who becomes her mentor. As she ascends higher in the ballet world, her relationship with Maurice intensifies, touching dark places within herself and sparking unexpected desires that will upend both their lives.

In the present day, Kate, a professor of dance at a Midwestern college, embarks on a risky affair with a student that threatens to obliterate her career and capsizes the new life she has painstakingly created for her reinvented self. When she receives a letter from a man she’s long thought dead, Kate is hurled back into the dramas of a past she thought she had left behind.

Told in interweaving narratives that move between past and present, Girl Through Glass illuminates the costs of ambition, secrets, and the desire for beauty, and reveals how the sacrifices we make for an ideal can destroy—or save—us.

The True Memoirs of Little K: A Novel, Adrienne Sharp
From Publisher’s Weekly: Sharp impressively conjures the grand life of Mathilde Kschessinka, Russian prima ballerina and mistress of Czar Nicholas II, in her sweeping third novel (after The Sleeping Beauty). Narrated by Mathilde–“Little K” as she was affectionately known–the story follows her early life under her well-placed father’s tutelage, and on through her determination, at 17, to catch Niki’s eye, their affair, his breaking it off so he can marry his Alexandra, Little K’s affairs with two grand dukes, Niki’s return to father her son, the removal of his family from power, and her escape before the imperial family’s slaughter. Sharp, a trained ballet dancer, gives the backstage escapades a lively spark and writes movingly of Russian dance. Though Mathilde is a bit narrow in terms of her icy ambition, her story is an unrelenting thrill ride and chockfull of the stuff that historical fiction buffs adore: larger than life characters, epic change, grand settings, and lusty plotting. © Reed Business Information

The Art of Falling, Kathryn Craft
All Penny has ever wanted to do is dance—and when that chance is taken from her, it pushes her to the brink of despair, from which she might never return. When she wakes up after a traumatic fall, bruised and battered but miraculously alive, Penny must confront the memories that have haunted her for years, using her love of movement to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. Kathryn Craft’s lyrical debut novel is a masterful portrayal of a young woman trying to come to terms with her body and the artistic world that has repeatedly rejected her. The Art of Falling expresses the beauty of movement, the stasis of despair, and the unlimited possibilities that come with a new beginning.

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White Swan, Black Swan: Stories, Adrienne Sharp
The world’s most famous choreographer becomes infatuated with a coltish young dancer who proves both siren and muse. A rising star plunges into an affair with a principal but finds that ecstasy on the stage can’t be surpassed in the bed. A dying legend reflects on the evanescent beauty of a life of gesture, lost to everything but memory. Each bittersweet story plants the reader amid a cast of dancers and choreographers who struggle—valiantly, playfully, fiercely—to find in the rigorous discipline and animating beauty of ballet a counterbalance to the chaos of unscripted life.

The Cranes Dance, Meg Howrey
Kate Crane is 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.

Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead
Joan is a young American dancer who helps a Soviet ballet star, the great Arslan Rusakov, defect in 1975. A flash of fame and a passionate love affair follow, but Joan knows that, onstage and off, she is destined to remain in the background. She will never possess Arslan, and she will never be a prima ballerina. She will rise no higher than the corps, one dancer among many.

After her relationship with Arslan sours, Joan plots to make a new life for herself. She quits ballet, marries a good man, and settles in California with him and their son, Harry. But as the years pass, Joan comes to understand that ballet isn’t finished with her yet, for there is no mistaking that Harry is a prodigy. Through Harry, Joan is pulled back into a world she thought she’d left behind—back into dangerous secrets, and back, inevitably, to Arslan.

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The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan
1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde.

Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other.

Off Balance, Terez Mertes Rose
Alice thinks she’s accepted the loss of her ballet career, injury having forced her to trade in pointe shoes onstage for spreadsheets upstairs. That is, until the day Alice’s boss asks her to befriend Lana, a pretty new company member he’s got his eye on. Lana represents all Alice has lost, not just as a ballet dancer, but as a motherless daughter. It’s pain she’s kept hidden, even from herself, as every good ballet dancer knows to do. Lana, lonely and unmoored, desperately needs some help, and her mother, back home, vows eternal support. But when Lana begins to profit from Alice’s advice and help, her mother’s constant attention curdles into something more sinister. Together, both women must embark on a journey of painful rediscoveries, not just about career opportunities won and lost, but the mothers they thought they knew.

Ballerina, Edward Stewart
[Note: first published in 1979.] Stephanie Lang and Christine Avery meet in ballet school. Although they share the same dream—to become great dancers—they could not be more different. Ballet is in Stephanie’s blood; her mother, Anna, is a former dancer who lives to see her daughter achieve the fame she herself never attained. Christine has lived a sheltered life, secure in the love of her family. But her privileged upbringing conceals a devastating secret.

Two teen dancers, one chance to make it. From the thrill and terror of auditions through years of meticulous training to landing a coveted spot in a professional company, Stephanie and Christine relentlessly pursue their ambitions. As they give their all to dance, they become inseparable—until they are torn apart by their passion for the same man, a brilliant Russian dancer whose seductive, mercurial temperament will have unforeseen consequences for them all.

First Love (also released as The Sleeping Beauty), Adrienne Sharp
Adam and Sandra are ballet dancers, friends since they were fifteen, and now lovers. Sandra is a dancer in the corps of the New York City Ballet who has just caught George Balanchine’s eye. Adam is an explosively gifted new star who has defected to the rival company, the American Ballet Theatre. They are in love, passionate and ambitious, but ill-prepared to handle the demands, seductions, and expectations that are visited on them as they come within reach of their dreams. The novel proceeds from a true premise: Since the beginning of his career, Balanchine sought to create an opulent ballet from the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, but never had the means and the muse come together at the same time. In First Love, Adrienne Sharp conjures in Sandra a last muse for the ailing ballet master. Balanchine promises to make Sleeping Beauty for her, and that it will be his final and greatest ballet. But Balanchine’s favor comes at a price, and Sandra is forced to decide which of her loves comes first.

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Outside the Limelight, Terez Mertes Rose    *A Kirkus Indie Books of the Month Selection*
Rising ballet star Dena Lindgren’s dream career is knocked off its axis when a puzzling onstage fall results in a crushing diagnosis: a brain tumor. Looming surgery and its long recovery period prompt the company’s artistic director, Anders Gunst, to shift his attention to an overshadowed company dancer: Dena’s older sister, Rebecca, with whom Anders once shared a special relationship.

Under the heady glow of Anders’ attention, Rebecca thrives, even as her slowly recuperating sister languishes on the sidelines of a professional world that demands beauty and perfection. Rebecca ultimately faces a painful choice: play by the artistic director’s rules and profit, or take shocking action to help the sister she came close to losing.

Exposing the glamorous onstage world of professional ballet, as well as its shadowed wings and dark underbelly, OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT examines loyalty, beauty, artistic passion, and asks what might be worth losing in order to help the ones you love.

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