Book Review: The Turnout by Megan Abbott

The Turnout by Megan Abbott is a tale both alarming and irresistible, a sharp and strange dissection of family ties and sexuality, femininity and power, that displays the underbelly of the dancing world.

Dara and Marie Durant are sisters but, more importantly, they’re dancers. Like their mother, they both showed early talent as ballerinas and followed in her footsteps first to the stage and then to teaching at the Durant School of Dance she founded. When they were teenagers, Mother brought Charlie, one of her young male dancers, to live with them when his own mom moved abroad. It was perhaps natural that Charlie and Dara should fall in love and, when an injury ended his dance career, that he join the sisters in running the school after the untimely death of their parents.

As cold weather approaches, so too does Nutcracker season, the largest event in any ballet school’s calendar. Frustratingly for the Durants, a small fire at the school means that they’ll have to gut and reconstruct one of their building’s three studios, a dreadful inconvenience given how busy they are. Enter Derek, the larger-than-life contractor who reminds the women of their late electrician father. Sweet, fly-away Marie falls into an all-consuming passion for him, even as the more practical Dara watches their relationship develop with growing concern.

It made Dara think about a story their mother told them once. About the famous ballerina in the nineteenth century, a gas lamp catching on her skirt, enveloping her in flames before the entire audience’s eyes. How she spun and spun, the flames consuming her until she was rescued.

 

She lingered a few months after, her corset melted to her ribs.

 

The surviving scraps of her costume still hung in the Musée de l’Opéra in Paris.

 

That, their mother told them, is love.

Dara is convinced that Derek has ulterior motives and slowly comes to wonder how complicit Marie is with his schemes as the renovations seem to take longer and longer, with one mishap following another. Worse, Derek starts making suggestive remarks about redesigning their family home in addition to the school.

Buildings aren’t the only legacy their parents left them, however. An addiction to privacy was instilled in the Durant girls from a very young age, but as Marie drifts further away from the lessons her parents taught them, everything they worked so hard for threatens to come undone. It will be up to Dara to right things and, when someone unexpectedly dies as a result, embody a dancer’s steel and grace no matter what the sacrifice and pain.

This claustrophobic, psychosexual look at people whose lives are governed by deception is one of the best Gothic takes on modern ballet I’ve ever enjoyed. For reference, I hated the movie Black Swan for being a tired string of neurotic ballerina stereotypes, with scenes lifted wholesale from other, better movies. Like that film, Megan Abbott’s absorbing novel doesn’t shy away from the self-torture or often catty competitiveness that plague a performer’s life; her book does, in fact, lean into the trope of dancers being weird at sex, as the most modern slang usage of the title implies. Unlike the movie, however, at no point does The Turnout diminish its characters or turn them into flat cardboard cutouts for readers to feel smugly superior to. Dara, Marie, and Charlie are all deeply flawed human beings, but the book explains why while entangling them in the kind of investigative scrutiny they’ve been raised to avoid.

There were things investigators knew how to find out. There were cameras everywhere now, the parking lot, the traffic lights. Phones told them everything. There was no private world anymore. The larger world had turned itself inside out, was seeking to infiltrate every smaller, private one. The home, the family.

 

Seeking to pass judgment. To prod and probe at a safe remove.

 

No one wanted to face the truth. That every family was a hothouse, a swamp. Its own atmosphere, its own rules. Its own laws and gods. There would never be any understanding from the outside. There couldn’t be.

Despite this insistence on opaqueness, The Turnout does a really terrific job of showing off and explaining the obsessive nature of ballet culture and how damaged people don’t just spring from a vacuum. It talks about the allure of dance, the ambition of dancers and their parents, and the often disturbing psychological undertones of even seemingly innocent things like The Nutcracker ballet. Ms. Abbott’s writing is both darkly atmospheric and unrelenting in its near-surgical dissection of ballet and desire, plunging the reader past the delicately glamorous facade of a career performer’s life into the nasty, pain-ridden longing that can fester at the heart of it.

And for all that death and deception and possibly murder wreak havoc on the lives of its characters, this novel does end on a note of hopefulness, of being able to rise above one’s past in order to embrace freedom and true happiness. I greatly enjoyed this page-turner, which served as an amazing introduction to Ms. Abbott’s award-winning oeuvre. I hadn’t had a chance to read any of her books yet before this, but from now on, I will definitely make time for more of her sumptuous prose and entertainingly disturbing stories.

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