I am a lifelong Gallophile. I remember my uncle teaching me how to count in French before I went to school and I have been full-on ever since. As a teenager, I dreamed of going to France and exploring all of the decadence and mystique that the City of Lights promised. When I finally got tired of waiting for a travel companion to materialize, I made plans to go on my own and it remains one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done. On one hand, I was able to finally see all the places I’d only read about and on the other, I confirmed my belief that solo travel is an important achievement for every person to unlock.
Some of the experiences I had in Paris and will never forget:
- Falling in love with the monument I least expected to: l’Arc de Triomphe
- Spending an afternoon reading Shopgirl in one sitting on a bench outside Jardin du Luxembourg and having a cat saunter over when I was midway through and go to sleep on the bench beside me
- Seeing Lost In Translation with French subtitles in a tiny move theatre that sat less than twenty people on Valentine’s Day
- Visiting Normandy and, in particular, the Canadian memorial there – that did more for me than any textbook or teacher
- That every single time someone mentioned the Obelisk, it was accompanied by this very suspect disclaimer: “it was a gift – we did not steal it”
I confessed on Instagram the other day that I thought I’d gotten Paris out of my system the last time I was there, but it appears I was mistaken because I just read a book that reignited all of it.
The Ballerinas by Rachel Kapelke-Dale
I stumbled across this book a while back. It got shoved to a back burner during my reading slump and, if I’m honest, even after I started, it took me a while to get into a good rhythm with it.
Thirteen years ago, Delphine abandoned her prestigious soloist spot at the Paris Opera Ballet for a new life in St. Petersburg––taking with her a secret that could upend the lives of her best friends, fellow dancers Lindsay and Margaux. Now 36 years old, Delphine has returned to her former home and to the legendary Palais Garnier Opera House, to choreograph the ballet that will kickstart the next phase of her career––and, she hopes, finally make things right with her former friends. But Delphine quickly discovers that things have changed while she’s been away…and some secrets can’t stay buried forever.
Moving between the trio’s adolescent years and the present day, Rachel Kapelke-Dale’s The Ballerinas explores the complexities of female friendship, the dark drive towards physical perfection in the name of artistic expression, the double-edged sword of ambition and passion, and the sublimated rage that so many women hold inside––all culminating in a twist you won’t see coming, with magnetic characters you won’t soon forget.
It’s hard to know what to expect from this synopsis, right? That emphasis on secrets and twists makes it sound like it could be a little mysterious, a bit of a thrill. And it is, but it’s also much deeper than just that.
This is largely a story about female friendship set against two really compelling backdrops: the world of ballet and Paris. The lives of Delphine, Lindsay and Margaux are told through alternating timelines, one current and others scattered over years past. Their relationships twist and turn through their connections to each other and their willingness to share their joys and their challenges.
What I felt made this story most meaningful was the ongoing personal reflections that Delphine shared with the reader. Her lifetime of giving her heart, soul and her body to her profession in a way that was largely unreciprocated became extremely relatable to me. Sure, my job has never required significant physical dedication, but I think there is a realization that many women make in their mid-to-late-thirties, when they recognize the disillusion that may have fuelled much of their commitment in life, particularly professionally. The Ballerinas gives the reader a chance to compare their own lived experience to a more glamourous version of the same and to also see how much we all truly have in common. (There are definitely some common threads between this book and The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections that I wrote about last week.)
Given that this was an uncorrected galley, I’m not supposed to share any quotes, but I couldn’t resist including this one because it is just so achingly true.
Every institution that employs young women inevitably places those young women at the bottom of the ladder.
Rachel Kapelke-Dale’s Instagram bio describes her as “Milwaukee native, Paris resident” and her writing reflects that. One of my favourite parts about her book is that I could imagine her personal experience coming through in her characters, one of whom is American. There are comparisons between French and (North) American life and references to the existence of and differences between cultural habits, customs and languages. I know that the French get a bad rap for being “rude” but it is exactly the behaviour that provokes such a label that I adore so much.
The Ballerinas is a perfect work of contemporary fiction, blending cultures and worlds while still remaining firmly focused on the beautifully imperfect characters. And, as promised, there are twists, too.
Thank you to Netgalley and St Martin’s Press for giving me the opportunity to read this book. It will be published on December 7th, 2021 and is available to for preorder now. In the meantime, visit Rachel Kapelke-Dale’s website to learn more about the authour and her work.