Fiction: “Dancing for Degas” by Kathryn Wagner

dancing for degasI was actually reading this book in the middle of March, but left it behind when I went to Florida. I once left a library book at a friend’s house in Massachusetts, and since then, I’ve never dared to bring a library book with me anywhere but my house and maybe the gym. But I was able to finish it when I returned, and I think I didn’t even have any overdue fees? Yay me possibly?

I found this in the library after reading The Art Forger, and I liked the idea of reading a book about Degas after reading another book about Degas. Sadly for me, this book was more about ballerinas and less about Degas than advertised.

The narrator of the book is Alexandrie, a daughter of a poor farming family in France. Her mother pushes her to work towards her dream of being a ballerina, but not out of some desire for the art; no, ballerinas were a stepping stone to being a rich man’s mistress, and if Alexandrie can achieve that goal, then she could send all the riches back to her poor farming family. In addition to the ballet lessons, Alexandrie’s mother sends her to study with M. Anton, a librarian or retired schoolteacher or something, so she can be an educated ballerina.

“I’m training to be a ballerina, not a society woman,” I protested. “Why can’t I concentrate on dancing and learn to read and write just a little? I doubt anyone expects me to be a scholar when I arrive. And if a gentleman was interested in marrying me, he would know I don’t come from a wealthy family and would be drawn to me because he had seen me dance. That’s where my passion is, and that’s what is going to attract my husband!”

“Once you arrive in Paris, you’ll find that you’ll need more than dancing if you are to get ahead,” my mother said firmly. She spoke again about how everything depended on me finding security for my family. “I need you to be a more logical thinker and to make wiser choices than I did, Alexandrie. At the very least it will scare off men who think they can get by on charm alone.” [p. 39]

Alexandrie does indeed pass her audition and joins the company of the Paris Opera Ballet. But it’s not just dancing.

So … here’s the thing. It’s not just Alexandrie’s mother who sees ballerina-ing as a stepping stone to getting married or becoming a rich dude’s mistress. It’s the entire ballerina system. Apparently, if a ballerina is still in the company at the age of 25, she must “work the Green Room”, which is code for “forced prostitution”. If a ballerina meets someone before she turns 25, and she gets married or becomes a mistress, she stops being a ballerina.

The young ballerinas are introduced to patrons in hopes of their being snatched up as mistresses. While there, she meets Edgar Degas, a patron of the Ballet who attends rehearsals and sketches the ballerinas in their poses. She is intrigued by him, and befriends him. Her roommate, Nicole, hears – well, not wedding bells, but mistress bells? Are mistress bells a thing?

I love the idea of our performances being captured on Monsieur Degas’ canvases for eternity – but inclinations, I do not have for him. I don’t want to explain to her that you can be interested in someone without wanting to become involved with them. [p. 114]

Alexandrie is drawn to Edgar, and as the story continues, she becomes his primary model for his sketches that eventually lead to his series of ballet dancer paintings. But meanwhile she’s pursuing a relationship with one of the younger rich dudes, and when he offers to set her up in a mistress-ship, she rejects it.

And then in the middle of the book France goes to war (don’t ask me which war – whatever war France fought in the 1880s or whenever) so the narrative of the book drops into letters and diary entries.

There’s a lot of drama in the book between the different ballerinas: who’s sleeping with who, who’s not being selected for which part, and the different ways women are just generally awful to each other (we try to rise above it, but we all know that women can be the worst).

And here’s the thing – if this book were about ballerinas, I might be into that type of drama. If I had picked up the book thinking, “Okay, this is going to be like that book I read about the opera star, and it’s going to be about how to make it in the ballet opera or whatever it’s called,” then I may have been okay with how the plot turned out. But if I pick up a book thinking, “This is going to be about Edward Degas and how he painted ballerinas and maybe there’s some other stuff going on” only to find out “Edward Degas is not the star of this book, a whiny teenaged ballerina mean girl is”, I’m gonna have a bad time.

I don’t know if I’m going to recommend this book. I’m giving it 1.5 stars – it didn’t suck; I didn’t want to throw it across the room or rant about it. It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve read in a while. It gets 1.5 stars because I wasn’t really angry at it; I was just disappointed.

I'm not madjust disappointed gifthat's worse

You’re right, Michael – it is worse.

Grade for Dancing for Degas: 1.5 stars

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