Dancing for Degas
Degas’ paintings of the Paris Opera Ballet corps come to life in all their freshness and immediacy in Kathryn Warner’s debut novel. As a teen, Alexandrie pays for her first dancing lessons by cleaning her teacher’s studio, and when her hard work earns her an audition at the Paris ballet, she is rescued from a bleak future in poverty-stricken rural France. Her visions of dancing her way to stardom are as frothy and fleeting as the sketches of Edgar Degas, a mysterious, aloof man who attends practices and eventually ask her to model for his reputation-making paintings of ballerinas. Alexandrie is too naive to understand how anyone could both crave and spurn the chance for lasting happiness with a like-minded soul, and she spends much of the novel caught up in the misery of unrequited love before maturing enough to understand that, like her, Degas has the strength, and the right, to make his own choices even if they don’t conform to others’ expectations.
The grueling life of the dancers and the toll on body and spirit is well depicted here, as is the tawdry underbelly of the ballet world, where the ethereal presences onstage are sold to the highest bidder for liaisons after the show, and the best future imaginable is as a lorette, the kept mistress of a rich, married man. Alexandrie’s salvation comes from a bit too unexpected a place, and it is disappointing that Wagner’s epilogue, set many years later, skimps on details about the post-ballet lives of both her and her friend Noella, whom the reader has also cheered for throughout the novel. Still, these are small flaws in a thoroughly engrossing and informative story.