Gigi, Bette, and June, three top students at an exclusive Manhattan ballet school, have seen their fair share of drama. Free-spirited new girl Gigi just wants to dance—but the very act might kill her. Privileged New Yorker Bette’s desire to escape the shadow of her ballet star sister brings out a dangerous edge in her. And perfectionist June needs to land a lead role this year or her controlling mother will put an end to her dancing dreams forever. When every dancer is both friend and foe, the girls will sacrifice, manipulate, and backstab to be the best of the best. — [X]
Okay, I’m not done with Nafiza’s recommendation for me just yet, so that will have to go up tomorrow or on Sunday. Today I’m going to talk about my own recommendation: Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton’s incredible debut novel Tiny Pretty Things.
I don’t know if it’s obvious anymore (since I feel like I’ve been reading outside my comfort zone for a while) that fantasy is favourite genre. It really is. But then books like All the Rage happen and I think, ‘Maybe I’m wrong about myself’. Books like that one either fill me with hope or with anger and when it comes to realistic fiction, I sometimes can’t tell the difference. Tiny Pretty Things makes me feel that feel. It’s the kind of anger that lets you see things clearly and alerts you to the changes that need to happen. It pushes one forward. This novel is full of those moments that push– and I’ll get to that soon enough.
The emotions that Tiny Pretty Things evokes is only part of the reason why it is so difficult to put down. The characters are, primarily, what drive the plot. Bette– as the summary states– is a privileged young woman who is, at first, the very picture of an ice queen. She comes from a wealthy family with a mother who treats her like a contestant in a Victorian dog fight. For Bette, things are pretty life or death and she turns that desperation into cool confidence. For the most part, Bette comes across as a manipulative antagonist, and while her tragic family life does not quite excuse her actions, there are small moments that make you pause:
I remember how ridiculously happy Adele looked when she was dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy, and how the role got her plucked straight out of school and given a spot in the company and I just dream of feeling that full. — Page 12.
These are those pushy moments I talked about above. For me, at least, they were the most important bits. Perhaps like most readers I wanted to curl myself protectively around Gigi– the new girl, consistently kind, absolutely talented, the only black student in her year– and snarl at anyone who came too close, but this is where Charaipotra and Clayton use multiple POVs to their advantage. They add layers of complexity to the characters’ stories and the longer we read about them, the harder it becomes to place blame and condemn any one character. For instance, through Bette we get a glimpse of how exclusive and how arduous ballet can be, how the system ought to be geared to welcome her with open arms, and how she is made entirely out this desperate want, this dream to “feel full”. Through Gigi, we see the bigotry behind this exclusivity. We see her, by all accounts a fantastic dancer, doubt herself at every step, feeling cornered, and utterly alone. Through June– a half-Korean/half-white student who is sick of being Gigi’s understudy– we get to see real internal conflict between her better intentions and her (almost self-destructive) ambitiousness, the kind of struggle that makes your heart bleed for her.
Even the side characters are wonderfully real and have compelling storylines. If you are a writer who’d like to write from multiple characters’ perspectives, you may want to pick this one up for reference. It does, as I said, a wonderful job of presenting life-like characters but it also knows exactly when to withhold information. In terms of pacing, Tiny Pretty Things is unrelenting and quite perfect. You want to pause at the end of each chapter, you almost don’t want to know what happens next, but you can’t help yourself. At some points, you start reacting with the characters and you’re not quite sure when you got this invested.
As Gigi’s tormentors get bolder and bolder, we start to see the pretty, ethereal world of ballet come apart, to be used as an arena by the authors to discuss issues ranging from racism to anorexia to abuse in a real and nuanced manner. By the end, you tend to feel rather foolish for judging the desperate actions of these kids who are stuck in an extremely competitive– often toxic– environment*. Basically, for a book about girls who turn on each other, I found Tiny Pretty Things to be one of the more clever feminist YA books this year. If you enjoyed novels like The Walls Around Us and Not Otherwise Specified, this one is most definitely for you. Actually, if you like anything with a bit of mystery to it, Tiny Pretty Things is a great choice. I, for one, can’t wait for the sequel.
*Actually, by the end, I kind of wanted to go the Dara O’Briain route and put all the adults (save for Gigi’s family) in a large sack, close the sack, and beat it with sticks.