Megan Abbott, unparalleled anatomist of the harm girls do to themselves and each other in pursuit of a physical ideal, has turned her unsparing gaze from gymnastics and competitive cheerleading to ballet. Ballet will survive, as it has through Black Swan, #MeToo scandals, and countless harrowing ballerina memoirs, but The Turnout may make you want to skip The Nutcracker this year.
Look at top dancers’ bios sometime and you’ll see that many of them come from far-flung towns with studios such as the Durant School of Dance, run by 30-ish sisters Dara and Marie Durant. They’re addressed as “Madame” and “Mademoiselle” by their students, standards are high, and the training, passed down from their late mother, is rigorous.
The Turnout may make you want to skip The Nutcracker this year.
Abbott makes it clear that ballet is not for the faint of heart in this unsettling description of pointe shoes: “The shoes were everything. Pink satin fantasies from afar.... But if you moved too close, you’d see that they’d already been battered, scored, disemboweled.... Pink satin fantasies we beat into submission so they can be used and then discarded. Pink satin fantasies created to give pleasure but destroyed in the process.”
For too long, practical, exacting Dara and sweet, unstable Marie have lived, breathed, and propagated the pink satin fantasy. The Durants’ school is beginning to fray around the edges, and when a fire in one of the studios threatens to derail their annual production of The Nutcracker, the women are finally forced to take action.
The contractor they hire disrupts more than the rehearsal schedule—think Stanley Kowalski with a sledgehammer and a shifty agenda. Is the fragile illusion the sisters have worked so hard to create worth preserving? How the Durants handle the reckoning they’ve deferred until reality almost blows their house down makes for a shattering, mesmerizing novel that transcends genre.
The incarceration of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II is an everlasting source of shame for the United States. Acting on unfounded suspicions of sabotage and spying by people of Japanese ancestry, the government rounded them up and removed them to prison-like camps, disrupting innocent lives in ways that still reverberate today. In Clark and Division, Naomi Hirahara shines a light on the aftermath of camp life, when select prisoners were re-settled in Chicago in 1943, where they were considered safely outside of military zones and could provide cheap factory labor to replace absent soldiers.
The Ito family has come from the Manzanar Camp in California to join their oldest daughter, Rose, who was recruited for relocation in the city. But when they arrive, they’re met with horrific news: their beautiful daughter has jumped to her death on the subway track at the Clark and Division Station.
This feels all wrong to Rose’s younger sister, Aki. Popular and self-assured, Rose had an apartment and an office job—she wasn’t the type to commit suicide. Once Aki has absorbed the shock, she starts asking around about Rose’s activities prior to her death. While adjusting to her new life in the city’s Japanese-American community, the shy but determined Aki discovers cracks in her sister’s poised façade and starts to acquire some of the confidence Rose once possessed.
In Clark and Division, Naomi Hirahara shines a light on the aftermath of Japanese-internment-camp life.
Hirahara tucks little land mines into the narrative: the bathrooms in the camps had no walls for privacy; Rose can’t be buried, because Chicago cemeteries wouldn’t accept Japanese bodies, never mind that she was born in California; the War Relocation Authority constantly spied on re-settlers such as the Itos to make sure they didn’t put a foot wrong, planting some of the seeds for the “model minority” syndrome.
Clark and Division is a rich blend of historical fiction and mystery. Though Hirahara doesn’t dwell too long on Manzanar, her evocation of daily life there is filled with memorable detail, as is her busy portrait of 1940s Chicago. Her storytelling style is clear and low-key, with no forced drama, allowing Rose’s tragedy to speak for itself.
In 2012, a Greek construction worker stole two paintings, a Picasso and a Mondrian, from the National Gallery in Athens. (A sketch by Guglielmo Caccia didn’t survive the theft.) Two months ago, he alerted the police to their hiding place, claiming remorse for his crime. For part of the past decade, he’d kept the paintings in a relative’s home, where he could commune with them privately.
The man was in the grip of obsession, much like the infamous Vincent Peruggia, an Italian handyman who stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre almost a hundred years earlier, supposedly with the intention of returning it to its rightful homeland, something which he eventually did, but not until he had already kept it in his apartment for two years, during which time La Gioconda could be his alone.
In Jonathan Santlofer’s novel, The Last Mona Lisa, artist and professor Luke Perrone travels to Florence to pursue a theory that the painting stolen by Peruggia was actually one of several fakes, and that the real Mona Lisa had been taken from the museum earlier, sold to an American collector, and replaced with one of the forgeries.
For part of the past decade, an art thief kept a Picasso and a Mondrian in a relative’s home, where he could commune with them privately.
It’s personal for Perrone, because Peruggia was his great-grandfather, and the artist is trying to track down his journal, which could hold the key to what really happened. As people connected to the journal turn up dead, Perrone becomes more resolute about unlocking its secrets. It helps that he’s no wifty artiste, but a tattooed former tough kid from Bayonne who’s not a stranger to violence.
Santlofer, an artist himself, knowledgeably guides the reader through the significant art treasures of Florence and Paris (where Perrone, oddly for an art historian, has never been), with plenty of action to goose the plot along lest the tone get too elevated. But his most striking achievement is capturing the divine and dangerous addiction that collecting art for art’s sake can become. Buyer and thief alike, beware.
Lisa Henricksson reviews mystery books for Air Mail. She lives in New York City