“The Turnout” follows the story of two sisters, Dara and Marie, who run the successful Durant School of Dance, which they inherited from their exacting mother, Madame Durant. After their parents died in a car accident, Dara and Marie remained in the family house, along with Dara’s young husband, Charlie. And each year, just as their mother had done, they stage a highly anticipated production of “The Nutcracker” that turns little girls into scheming monsters — everyone wants to be Clara — but keeps the school financially en pointe.
Anyone who has ever attended a performance of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet will enjoy the myriad references to Dewdrops, Snowflakes, mice and toy soldiers as the novel whirls along. A number of characters also correspond to Nutcracker figures from the original, much darker story by E.T.A. Hoffmann (the first Mouse King had seven heads). Marie, for example, is the name Hoffmann gave his young heroine, who became Clara in the ballet adaptation.
Abbott’s interpretation of Clara/Marie as an adolescent riven by erotic awakenings is cleverly based on Hoffmann’s story. Though Marie Durant is a grown woman, she seems like a teenager, despite her recent bid for independence by moving into an attic room above the dance studio. Compared to the businesslike, disciplined Dara, Marie is impulsive, disorganized and “often gave off the grimy energy of someone never fully clean.” And just as Clara is infatuated with the Nutcracker Prince yet thrillingly menaced by the Mouse King, Marie has her own divided attractions.
There’s her brother-in-law, the pallidly handsome Charlie, an injured ex-dancer — who was once the Nutcracker Prince — and her mother’s former protege, for whom Marie has problematic feelings. But after a fire at the school necessitates repairs on one studio, a new romantic interest leaps onstage: the huge, smarmy Derek, a fast-talking contractor who persuades Charlie, the Durants’ business manager, to agree to a major and expensive renovation. Derek is repulsively fascinating, with his power tools, “his too-tight dress shirts, his dual phones, his throbbing beeper,” and obviously a rat. Marie is smitten.
Even a dysfunctional situation is functional until something comes along to disrupt it. A disrupter par excellence, Derek leers, speaks in salacious double entendres and has a thuggish dalliance with the willing Marie, all while ripping the studio apart. Remodeling becomes a full-scale assault. The sisters, once so close, turn on each other, and fantasies shudder into nightmares. Yet this year’s performance of “The Nutcracker” must go on.
At times, the plot’s inevitable murder, sexual intrigue and family secrets seem almost incidental to the auditions and rehearsals, the bickering dancers and complaining parents, the punishing toe shoes and pulled muscles. Though it’s soon apparent that “The Turnout” is as much about female rage, jealousy and sexual desire as it is a suspense novel set in a dance studio. The male characters are strikingly fragile or brutish, and Abbott uses ballet itself, that “misty pink hothouse,” to dramatize how women can both harm and glorify themselves through sex. Abbott has explored these issues previously in novels such as “Give Me Your Hand” (2018), “You Will Know Me” (2016) and “Dare Me” (2012).
Achieving a “turnout” — a dancer’s ability “to rotate her body one-hundred-eighty degrees, from the hips down to the toes” — an excruciating position likened to “a doll with its legs put on backward,” makes this point all too clearly. “The moment you achieve it,” Madame Durant told her daughters, “you’ve become a dancer. You’ve become a woman.” Fortunately, the novel’s real focus is on how Dara and Marie begin to reexamine their mother’s damaging legacy, learn to dance to their own music and separate “true longing” from the fairy-tale kind.
Suzanne Berne is a novelist whose books include “A Crime in the Neighborhood” and “The Ghost at the Table.”
By Megan Abbott
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 341 pp. $27.