Brightest Star in Paris

Written by Diana Biller
Review by Gini Grossenbacher

1878 Paris. Amelie St. James has more than one battle to fight. Though she has risen to prima ballerina status with the Paris Opera Ballet, she must face her body’s decline through the continual abuse of dance. Her many falls and subsequent injuries have led to her life of constant pain. Her former love, Benedict, returns to Paris from America, and their encounter triggers a host of memories about their past relationship and promises dashed. When a dead man appears in her dressing room, she must rely on the ghosts of former dancers, which guide her to the mystery’s answer and also to her future beyond the theater world.

This well-researched novel thrusts the reader into Paris when the opera ballet was at its height; descriptions of people, places, and things shine. The author lures us into Amelie’s wounded self, her dealings with grief and loss, and the mountain she faces when encountering Honoré de Lavel, her mother’s ex-lover and the father of her sister Honorine. (He had given her mother syphilis, which has caused her death.) Amidst all the unfolding scenes, Benedict appears a calm foil for the chaotic life in which Amelie attempts to grasp the truth amidst the pain.

The novel’s strength lies in the depiction of opera ballet life and the physical pain that inhabits a career dancer’s body. The love story is well drawn, and the characters seem realistic. But the ghosts detract from the story substance, because they draw the reader’s attention from Amelie’s quest through their continual shape-shifting. Also, at times, the backstory chapters take the reader away from the ongoing narrative. Yet overall, the novel succeeds in its presentation of ballet life in the Belle Époque.