Mira Able is a quiet 11-year-old whose devotion to ballet demands the utmost obsession. The book brims with knowledge of ballet, citing famous figures, prestigious schools, Edgar Degas, and the physical toll: “Her bones will knit together in new ways. Her hands will grow strong, her fingers blunt, and her feet rough and calloused as tree bark.” As Mira ascends through the ranks, she forms a relationship with Maurice DuPont, a strange, wealthy balletomane who renames her Mirabelle, and then Bella. He becomes her mentor, saying such fanciful things as, “If the dark is coming, make it your friend” and “She is not beautiful but she moves towards beauty.” Halfway through the book, it is obvious that Mira’s relationship with this older man will determine how the story unfolds, a rather uncomfortable setup. Why does the man hold so much sway? Presently, Mira is a professor of dance who goes by Kate Randell, and the author perfectly paces the stories of both past and present until they converge, revealing the much dreaded turning point.
Obsession is tireless and exhilarating, and ballet puts obsession on full display. How bizarre that ballet is some kind of girlhood rite-of-passage, when what it demands and celebrates is so specific and often unattainable, “some old dead guy’s idea of beauty.” But of course it is more than that. The strive for perfection, for mastery, is nothing short of inspiring. The author does an exquisite job of merging ballet’s many faces into one, a portrait of great beauty and greater sacrifice. Or is it the other way around?