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The Turnout


The Turnout

Ballet dreams --- plenty of kids have them. I certainly did, and though I never came close to being a dancer, I’m still at the barre twice a week (these days via Zoom). I fell in love with the swans, the satin shoes, the elegance, the music, and I’ve never quite given up that fantasy. But THE TURNOUT, Megan Abbott’s latest thriller-cum-gothic novel, is more like a ballet nightmare.

There is a striking cinematic tradition of linking ballet with the dark side of the psyche. The 1937 French film Ballerina, which I saw at a formative age, involves a 12-year-old student who so idolizes a famous dancer that she sabotages a rival, crippling her for life. More famously, The Red Shoes (1948) posits a conflict between love and art that can end only in suicide. The Turning Point (1977) is tamer, but there is still plenty of seething rivalry and pain, and 2010’s Black Swan takes the melodramatic cake, with a psychologically fragile dancer descending into hallucination and madness.

To be fair, there are aspects of ballet --- neurotic perfectionism; abuse by teachers, company directors or even fellow dancers; self-abuse (eating disorders, body-image issues) --- that make the girls and women involved exceptionally vulnerable. The same is true for the subjects of Abbott’s other recent novels: cheerleaders, gymnasts, high-powered young scientists. Of late, I’m happy to say, there is more transparency about such problems, and an effort to improve the psychological and physiological equilibrium of this rarefied world. 

In THE TURNOUT, though, an eerie mélange of sexuality and obsession prevails, as Edgar Award winner Abbott (QUEENPIN, 2008) applies her suspense-fiction expertise to the realm of tiaras and pointe shoes.

" eerie mélange of sexuality and obsession prevails... [THE TURNOUT] is atmospheric, suspenseful and full of marvelously juicy behind-the-scenes details."

It’s “Nutcracker” season, the annual moneymaker and “necessary evil” that keeps schools and companies afloat. Sisters Dara and Marie Durant, owners of an elite ballet academy founded by their mother, are racing the clock. They grew up doing arabesques practically from birth, in a rundown old house where their father holed up in his den and their steely, queenly mother ruled. Their parents died in a car accident 12 years ago, and now the Durant girls are in charge, along with Charlie --- once a prize pupil at the academy, he saw his dancing career ended by injuries --- who is married to Dara and handles the business side.

A series of crises, natural and not, besiege the sisters and their school. First, there’s a fire in one of the studios; after that, a lengthy renovation presided over by Derek, a strangely sinister contractor who begins a flagrant affair with Marie; then a flood --- all this against the background of “Nutcracker” rehearsals, rich in high-strung girlish nerves. Envious students attack the dancer chosen as Clara, the star of the show (a razor in her slipper; a dead rat in her changing-room cubby). As tensions rise, someone is killed, as is usually the case in a Megan Abbott book, and disturbing family secrets --- including the truth about how the Durant sisters’ parents died --- are revealed.

It’s true that the original “Nutcracker” story is not all sugar plums and fluffy tutus. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s German fairy tale of the early 19th century is a coming-of-age saga with a creepy, quasi-sexual vibe --- a mix of pleasure and danger. And even though the scenario has been softened a lot since then, Abbott chooses to go back to its gothic roots. From the beginning of THE TURNOUT, she establishes a mood of conflict, tension and illicit desire, creating disquieting parallels between ballet and a girl’s emerging sexuality.

Achieving the hip rotation known as turnout is akin to losing one’s virginity, in Abbott’s telling: “The feeling [was] ecstatic. Her first time, Dara felt split open, laid bare.” Similarly, the process of adapting a pointe shoe so it fuses to your foot --- “its pinkness split open, its soft center exposed” --- is “a ritual as mysterious and private as how [a girl] might pleasure herself.” And there’s a dancer’s peculiar relationship to pain, involving various forms of self-torture --- from ravaged feet (“blood blisters...calluses thick as canvas…necrotic, ulcerated toes, their nails slipping off….”) to bizarre diets (“celery and watermelon juice”) --- that verge on the masochistic. “The pain is real and abiding,” Dara tells herself. The pain is bracing and makes you feel alive. The pain is your friend. The pain is you.

Yikes! A public-service announcement for parents reading this: THE TURNOUT is definitely R-rated.

In any case, as I read on, it became increasingly clear that it’s a story of sisters, of family, more than it is a ballet novel as such. There’s sibling rivalry (Dara was regarded by their mother as more skilled, Marie as more “memorable”), sexual jealousy (what was Charlie’s exact relationship to their mother and to Marie?), domestic violence, quasi-incestuous couplings and marital betrayal. “[E]very family was a hothouse, a swamp,” Dara muses. “Its own atmosphere, its own rules.... There would never be any understanding from the outside.” In short, it’s a trap. With the pull of past intimacies so strong, it’s no wonder that Dara, Marie and Charlie struggle to keep their balance.

I’m ambivalent about THE TURNOUT. It is atmospheric, suspenseful and full of marvelously juicy behind-the-scenes details. But because I feel proprietary about ballet, I was sometimes bothered by the slightly lurid portrait it presents. I wanted to feel Abbott’s affection for the art.

That comes only at the end, in a coda that takes place a year after the events of the book. It’s “Nutcracker” season again, and Dara witnesses both parent and child captured by holiday memories: “Watching the audience, you can see them tunneling back, the ache of it all. Their hearts opening.” They --- we --- identify with Clara’s hunger to be let into the adult domain, her fantasy of “a dark and sumptuous world where she’s a hero and a queen.”

Beautifully put. It reminded me of my own hunger to see a long-awaited post-pandemic performance of this beloved classic. Let’s hope it happens.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on August 6, 2021

The Turnout
by Megan Abbott

  • Publication Date: May 3, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
  • ISBN-10: 0593084926
  • ISBN-13: 9780593084922