I am always in the middle of a dozen books, but I can never resist picking up the ones that the rest of my family is reading & seeing what I think — so when my young sister brought Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton’s Tiny Pretty Things home from the library, I read the first few pages — and then a few more, because with a point-of-view character named Cassie, how could I not? Then Cassie vanished from the narrative, and I kept reading to discover what happened to her, and soon I did not want to put the book down; I ended up devouring it over the course of a few days, reading at all hours the way one does with a guilty pleasure — although I hate that phrase, why the guilt? This is not at all the sort of thing I typically read, a fast-moving novel about ballet students behaving badly, and it is somewhat poorly constructed at the end, but still, it was definitely a pleasure and has stayed with me afterwards, so I have been musing the last few months about why.
Tiny Pretty Things has three viewpoint characters, all students at the American Ballet Conservatory: Bette, who is white, June, who is half-white, half-Korean, and Gigi, who is black. I did not know about the diversity going in to the book, but I am delighted by it, and that the novel approaches race in a way which is realistic without being didactic. Both June and Gigi are aware that no matter how well they dance, they will always meet prejudice for failing to conform to the pale, blonde ideal of their Russian instructors — the ideal that Bette achieves with seeming ease. When one of the white male dancers tells Gigi that he likes how different she is from the other students, she can only hear it as being about her race, knowing “that being different can be a code word for being black, for something that isn’t white.” June, meanwhile, contends with being “the only half-Asian ballerina,” feeling that she is “not quite right anywhere.” Yet while each of these young women is aware of the difficulties she faces, the novel firmly avoids letting the white characters fix it; as June notes, “no one wants to talk to the most privileged boy at school about the stuff nonwhite girls face in ballet.” For June and Gigi racism is an elephant in the room, an enormous obstacle which must be silently navigated around, and I found the contrast between their awareness and Bette’s anxious, angry entitlement heightened my own awareness of how power and privilege were playing out in the narrative.
While I admired the nuanced way the authors focused attention on race, and enjoyed the diverse cast, I think what I loved most about this book is that it shows the characters working. In my own teen years I loved to read novels about actors or dancers, singers or musicians, but very few of them were ever shown practising — that was something mentioned in a sentence now and again, but only shown on-screen when something dramatic would occur to interrupt the rehearsal. Charaipotra & Clayton, however, have chosen to foreground the sheer, unremitting labour of studying ballet at this level. Bette, Gigi and June all spend hours upon hours practising each day, and the authors use this time in a number of narratively clever ways. Each young woman approaches practise differently, and their characters is developed in the details of how they choose to work, when and where, and what else they do with the time — planning for the future, secret rendezvous, a chance to break down and cry, or occasionally simply losing themselves in physical motion and the joy of dance. Yet all this time spent in scenes of practise increases the narrative tension; I could never forget that each young woman is just one mis-timed leap away from an injury that would interrupt their careers for months or years. I loved to see the authors respecting the reality of hard work while making narrative use of it; it gave the book a solidity that so many stories of artists lack.
I have read many reviews which call this a ‘soapy’ book, and I still can’t tell if that is meant as a compliment. The ballet school is an intensely competitive environment; each student is not only trying to outdo her rivals, but also to better her own performances, as each moment of perfection simply creates higher expectations in the adults who have the real power. I found it quite understandable that all the students would constantly watch one another, trying to measure success and failure, judging who their toughest competition is — and some of them go the next step, strategising how to eliminate rivals. Yes, I think the rapidity of revelations, the number of secrets, the timing of events, all of these things push the book towards melodrama, but I found the emotions underlying these things quite realistic both in their high pitch and in their ebb and flow. Some of these young women have suffered real trauma, and Charaipotra & Clayton show that as a factor without allowing it to be an excuse for the bad behaviour. I also liked, very much, the treatment of female sexual desire; it is so rare that a book celebrates the female gaze, where women of any age are shown as partially motivated by physical desire which stems from themselves rather than in response to a man who is soliciting it. There is sexual violence in the book, but there is a great deal more pleasure; desire is depicted as risky, perhaps, and distracting, but also as deeply enjoyable, and none of the three viewpoint characters ever questions her right to feel it.
I mentioned at the beginning of my review that this book is poorly constructed towards the end — it does not really end, or even stop, it just keeps going until suddenly there are no more pages. I am not certain whether Charaipotra & Clayton were already contracted for a sequel, but even if they were, it is poor writing in my mind, and I wish they had troubled to do better. Yes, life does just keep going like that, but narrative is created and controlled, and there did not seem to be any reason to keep moving forward except to entice readers towards the next book — which was unnecessary, this book was strong enough that most readers will want more regardless. I will certainly read the next one, but I hope they will take the time to structure the plot more elegantly; there is so much I like in what they write, I would like to be able to praise their work without reservation.