“The Sugar Plum Fairy has the farthest to fall.”
Gigi Stewart is the new girl at an elite ballet academy in New York City. She comes from a laid-back California dance studio, and isn’t prepared for the intense competition and catty backstabbing amongst the New York dancers. To make matters worse, Gigi has a secret, one she is determined not to let her classmates use against her—it’s bad enough being the only black girl at the conservatory without everyone knowing her medical history. Two long-time dancers at the school are Bette Abney and June Kim, both of whom are legacy students. Bette is fighting to get out from under her sister’s shadow, bringing out a ruthless competitiveness that has already cost her one of her oldest friends, and she may still lose her boyfriend if he ever finds out what she did. June is a half-Asian student who doesn’t fit in anywhere since she was rejected by the other Korean girls. June has always been an understudy, and now her mother is threatening to take her out of the academy so she can focus on preparing for college—unless she can land a starring role. The competition is about to go from fierce, to brutal. Hanging over it all is the spectre of Cassie Lucas, the last girl who was driven out of the school by bullying.
The prologue focuses on Cassie Lucas, and the final, defining moment that pushed her from the school, driven out by students who couldn’t accept that a newer, younger dancer might take a starring role. After that, the perspective rotates between Gigi, Bette, and June. By using three perspectives, Charaipotra and Clayton are free to explore a variety of issues that might plague an aspiring ballerina, from familial pressures, to anorexia, to recurring injuries. What would be overwhelming if laid on the shoulders of one character can be distributed among them to better effect. It also helps round out the characters; from the outside, Bette seems cold and calculating, but there is turmoil beneath the surface that makes her more than simply a villain. There is plenty soapy drama here, but also some depth, as the girls struggle with identity, and what it may cost to realize their dreams.
I picked up this book thinking it was a stand-alone volume, and as such I had some problems with the structure and pacing. As the end nears, we still don’t know everything about who is responsible for the various attacks on Gigi, despite some fairly strong suspicions. The repeated references to Cassie seem somewhat ineffective, since we know very little about her before she vanishes from the scene. However, knowing that there is a follow-up volume changes the perspective on these structural choices. There is space now for Cassie to re-enter the picture, as well as more time for the truth to come out. And there is still room to raise the stakes—after fighting tooth and nail for roles in The Nutcracker, and Giselle, next the girls will be competing not for roles, but for spots in professional ballet companies.
However, knowing there is a sequel doesn’t relieve all of the problems in Tiny Pretty Things. I was looking to the romance in the book to provide a bit of relief from the constant drama and competition, but the relationships are just as fraught as the dancing. June becomes involved with her former best friend’s boyfriend, and since he won’t break up with Sei-Jin, they have to keep their involvement a secret. Meanwhile, Alec shifts his affections from Bette to Gigi with a suddenness that would suggest he only cares about being the boyfriend of the lead dancer—even though this isn’t otherwise in line with is character. Meanwhile, Bette is being harassed by Henri, Cassie Lucas’s former boyfriend and dance partner, who seems to have come to New York from his Paris school for the sole purpose of finding out what really happened to Cassie. However, his intensity is much more creepy than romantic. This read is dark all around, and could use a little light, but the romance isn’t it.
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