Meg Howrey’s The Cranes Dance opens with a witty, tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic synopsis of the ballet Swan Lake. It’s the sort of abbreviated telling that any one who has performed on stage would recognize: full of tangents and eye rolls, snarky comments and wonderings on who has her costume now.
I opened this book expecting literary fiction. I was prepared for literary fiction. What I got was that delicate, elusive balance between self-deprecating, wry humor and the spare and elegant prose I’ve come to associate with the literary novels I’ve most enjoyed. Kate Crane is a dancer with a prominent ballet company in New York City. Her younger sister Gwen has left for their home in Michigan, to recuperate from a knee injury and an impending psychotic break. Kate’s left to wind her way through the company’s season alone, free of her sister’s shadow for the first time in years.
I have no words for this book. None. They’ve been gobbled up, drained away, blown off in a brisk wind. This book came along at the best time, the perfect time, because I’d just finished a disappointing historical novel and mushified my brain even more with a hideous erotic romance. The Cranes Dance restored my faith in the written word, the world of fiction, the beauty of the English language and how you can string sentences together so they’re simple, coherent, and yet lovelier than paintings.
Howrey is a former dancer, and it shows. We’re given an insider’s view of a dancer’s life, from class to the pain to the shoes to the sweat and tears and drama that goes on both onstage and off. Love, guilt, desire, anger, happiness and sorrow twine together to make an unbreakable bond between Kate and her sister, Kate and her friends, Kate and the rest of the company. Howrey parses out snippets of Kate’s former life with her sister, before she left, before she stopped talking to her. We see Gwen’s obsessions and her madness, the indescribable grace with which she dances, and how much of a firecracker Kate is next to her. What Kate lacks in lyrical style she makes up for with a deep well of imagination and passion. You can see her new life unfolding, the one she will live after she retires. And you want to stick around for it.
It’s not a book about dance. Or it is, but to classify it as a book about a dancer would be to oversimplify it. It’s a story of dance, of life, of the mistakes we make when we wait too long to say something. Kate covers her vulnerability with wit and sarcasm, unable and unwilling to give voice to the doubts nibbling at the edges of her brain. Can she make it through this performance without falling on her ass? Should she have seen the signs of Gwen’s psychosis sooner? Is Marius, the artistic director, ever going to promote her, or will he fire her? She has weaknesses, like any human, but she doesn’t want them exposed.
Gwen’s sickness starts and stops, spreads, retreats, encroaches on Kate’s life even when she’s not around. It picks up speed as the story winds around to its conclusion. This is a “I forgot to eat lunch” book. A “Just one more chapter” book. A “Is that really what time it is?” book. It makes you think in a jumble of words and feelings and run-on sentences. By the end, you’re not sure who the crazy one is: Gwen or Kate.
Maybe we all are.