Review of Bunheads
I first heard about Sophie Flack’s novel Bunheads in the actors’ magazine Backstage. The article was about the author’s experience as a dancer in the New York City Ballet and how she took that period in her life and turned it into a (fictional) book.
Immediately, I was interested; as I mentioned in my review of Lucky Break, I’m a sucker for stories about performance art, and I’ve always been fascinated by ballet in particular. The book, the article said, focuses on the backstage life of a dancer, as opposed to the glamour onstage, and I couldn’t wait to read it.
The story follows nineteen year-old Hannah Ward, a dancer in the corps de ballet with the Manhattan Ballet. As all ballet dancers must, she’s dedicated her entire life to her art and dreams of promoted from anonymous corps dancer to soloist. However, the world of dance is a cold one, and no matter how hard she works, she’s overlooked, watching her friends move up in the world while she stays where she is. Eventually, Hannah begins to question if it’s worth it: does she really want to waste her college-age years in a single building, working and sweating and one injury away from it all being for nothing? After a show one night, Hannah goes to a bar and meets a college guy who is playing guitar there, Jason. They instantly get along and Jason shows Hannah that though she lives in New York, she doesn’t actually live in New York. With him, she has fun touring the city and just hanging out, something she rarely gets to do. But when Hannah glimpses the door to a promotion opening, she pushes Jason aside to work toward that. In the end, Hannah needs to decide between the hard world of ballet and the everyday world.
Bunheads,sadly,was a bit of a disappointment. Flack is a student at Columbia University, but the first few chapters reminded me of an amateur’s writing exercise. The writing is clunky and occasionally forced, making for an uncomfortable read. For example, at the beginning of the third chapter, a paragraph runs thus:
“Matilda doesn’t come around the theater often- backstage isn’t the best place for a kid- so I’m always surprised that she remembers my name and that she seems so excited to see me. I guess she’s what they call precocious.”
Additionally, in those same chapters, Flack goes overboard with the teen vernacular; the youngest character is sixteen, the oldest, nineteen, but all of them speak in the same unrealistic way, from the overly sweet “Oh, Bea, it’s just like you to find something nice to say,” to the stereotypically teenage “like, totally.”
This problem does improve as the novel goes on, but there are other issues that remain throughout the book. Flack sometimes doesn’t give her readers enough credit and sums up the life of a dancer within dialogue. While it is admirable that she is trying to keep her reader informed, what the dancers are discussing is so normal to them that they wouldn’t have lengthy, explanatory exchanges about it.
Flack’s novel gives us a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes world of ballet, which was what drew me to the book in the first place, and there are definitely some harsh realities that Hannah and her friends have to face. First and foremost is a problem in almost any artistic field: your best friends are also your worst competition, and sometimes it’s hard to find the balance. There is the stereotypical, but sadly still true, expectation for ballet dancers to be rail-thin; Flack dismisses the rumors that all dancers are anorexic, but doesn’t deny the fact that they still can’t eat very much, or their weight is commented on. Hannah gets her first period in the novel, not uncommonly late for someone whose body is so rigidly disciplined, and when she begins to develop, her chest is noted as being a problem and possibly grounds for dismissal.
There is also the eternal struggle for any performance artist: will I have wasted all of this time just to fail in the end? Should I quit now and enjoy life, or keep working in the hopes that one day, the person in the spotlight will be me? Hannah grapples with this throughout the novel, and while her internal musing is believable, I didn’t like how the novel was separated almost into chunks: Hannah’s commitment to ballet, Hannah’s rebellion, then back to commitment, then, ultimately, rebellion. I liked that Hannah made a brave choice at the end of the novel, but it was almost expected in the pattern. However, even though the sequence hinted that Hannah would make the decision she does at the end, I was unable to see her make that decision for herself before telling the director of the ballet company. I don’t think Flack meant to it to be a surprise- and perhaps to a non-performer, it wouldn’t have been- but a lot of the things that Hannah complained about, I put into the category of Things You Deal With As a Performer, as opposed to Things That Might Drive You to Abandon Your Life’s Dream.
For all its drawbacks, I liked the novel enough to finish it. I do think Flack should have polished the novel a bit more before sending it off to agents and publishers, but it was an enjoyable enough read. I hope that, like Cassandra Clare, this first novel is merely a glimpse of the true writing talent she has and that if she publishes again, her compositions will be at a higher level.