With a Megan Abbott book, you have a good idea what you’re going to get. Ever since 2012’s Dare Me, Abbott has carved out a niche writing about women and girls in high-pressure environments, pushing back against restrictions and limitations until tempers boil over. Dare Me and You Will Know Me rendered high school cheerleading and competitive gymnastics, respectively, in vivid blood-red, guiding readers through twisty murder investigations set in deeply feminine spaces. 2014’s The Fever followed a mysterious contagion through a group of high school girls. 2018’s Give Me Your Hand, my personal favorite, adjusted the formula to reunite two estranged women in a highly competitive medical research lab, years after their competitive friendship in high school. With reunion comes the potential for a long-buried secret between the two of them to explode. (Of course it explodes. In Abbott’s contemporary novels, something or something always explodes. I haven’t read her pre-2012 noir crime novels, but judging by the number of murders, gamblers, and missing persons therein, I have the feeling their pages also contain era-appropriate physical and emotional explosions.)
So it makes complete sense that Abbott turns her attention to another feminine pressure-cooker, the ballet school, in her new novel The Turnout. Certainly anyone who has danced classical ballet—or even caught a couple episodes of the Netflix adaptation of Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton’s Tiny Pretty Things—knows what’s coming: the juxtaposition of elegant, gauzy, seemingly effortless beauty on stage with the ugly, punishing hard work behind the scenes. Human feet aren’t meant to wear pointe shoes, and inside that pink satin footwear, a ballerina’s feet are bruised, bloody, gnarled.
The main characters of The Turnout are Dara and Marie Durant, sisters who run what was once their mother’s ballet school, helped behind the scenes by their mother’s former protégé, Charlie. Dara and Marie’s parents died in a car accident when they were still teenagers, while Charlie was living with the family, and Dara and Charlie got married less than a year later. And except for a few months when Marie decamps to live upstairs in the ballet school, the three have lived the entire time in the girls’ childhood home. Sound claustrophobic? It is, almost unbearably so, both for the characters and the reader. With the entire book filtered through Dara’s point of view, as a questionable decision early in the novel spirals into an ever-worsening situation for all three of the main characters, you’re likely to read with your shoulders up around your ears, full of tension and dread. When the crime finally comes at last, it’s almost a relief.
Abbott quite rightly sets the action of the novel at the most important and nerve-racking time of year for any ballet school for young dancers: rehearsals for the annual production of The Nutcracker. And the writing is rich with Abbott’s trademark detail, focusing in on the tendrils of hair escaping from a young student’s bun, the dramatic importance of the color of a dancer’s rehearsal tights, the brutal strain that looking so elegant puts on a young body constantly pushed to its limits.
Yet the core of the story—where Dara, Marie and Charlie have been and where they’re headed and how those two things are inextricable from each other—doesn’t really need ballet. It feels like this set of characters could have undergone most of this plot in a different setting. Perhaps it’s the laser focus on these three characters that imposes some distance. After all, they’re all former dancers, though the ballet school provides all three with their livelihood. In a way, though Dara and Marie both teach students six days a week at the school, the experience that feels most tied to ballet is Charlie’s. The grim toll that dance has taken on his body, including constant medication, pain management, and physical therapy, is a constant theme throughout the book. Dance has both created and crushed all three of these characters, and if it seems unhealthy that they have so little experience beyond its confines—well, that’s part of Abbott’s point.The Turnout is a page-turner, suffused with dread even when the scene being described involves doing paperwork with a contractor. Abbott’s work here shows off the talents she’s become known for: for twisting the knife, for forcing characters to reckon with their unsavory pasts, for writing about sexual longing in a way that’s more unsettling than sensual, for plunging us so deep into unfamiliar environments they feel utterly familiar by the final page. The book’s setting and plot may not merge as seamlessly as they do in some of her previous work, but both are still powerful and present. If you enjoy twisty crime novels with unmistakably dark subject matter, you’ll do well to put yourself in Abbott’s capable hands for a few hundred pages. You’ll never look at a pointe shoe the same way again.
By Megan Abbot
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Published August 03, 2021
Bestselling author of historical fiction and historical fantasy. Out now: THE ARCTIC FURY. Up next: SCORPICA (The Five Queendoms #1, 2.22.22, as G.R. Macallister).