Plot summary: So begins the tale of Kate Crane, a soloist in a celebrated New York City ballet company who is struggling to keep her place in a very demanding world. At every turn she is haunted by her close relationship with her younger sister, Gwen, a fellow company dancer whose career quickly surpassed Kate’s, but who has recently suffered a breakdown and returned home. Alone for the first time in her life, Kate is anxious and full of guilt about the role she may have played in her sister’s collapse. As we follow her on an insider tour of rehearsals, performances, and partners onstage and off, she confronts the tangle of love, jealousy, pride, and obsession that are beginning to fracture her own sanity. Funny, dark, intimate, and unflinchingly honest, The Cranes Dance is a book that pulls back the curtains to reveal the private lives of dancers and explores the complicated bond between sisters.
This is a novel about ballet, about siblings and about that dark voice inside your head. From the beginning we know that Kate and Gwen Crane are ballet dancers with a strong sisterly bond who dance with a prestigious ballet company. Unfortunately Gwen has had to temporarily absent herself from the ballet as Kate has informed their parents of her sister’s bouts of (unspecified) severe mental illness. What this entails and how this came about is very slowly unravelled throughout the book, which becomes progressively darker with every page.
What made this book for me is Kate Crane. She is possibly the most relatable, the most believable and the most real character I have ever read. It was honestly like she was inside my head. She has flaws, but not those exaggerated traits that fictional characters are often given to pad them out a bit. She was so, so real. She was likeable, for the most part, but those parts where she wasn’t so perfect just made her relatable. Every other character was a little flat, but perhaps almost purposefully? The point of this book is that we’re inside Kate’s head and she’s so preoccupied with her sister’s illness and her own mental state that she doesn’t take the opportunity to examine other people.
What impressed me the most was that the reader somehow knows that Kate feels disregarded and abandoned. Everybody is so preoccupied about Gwen that nobody asks how she’s feeling, nobody wonder if it was hard for her to do what was best for Gwen, nobody cares whether it’s difficult for her too. The thing is, although she never once shares this, somehow it seeps through. The Cranes Dance is a masterpiece of characterisation and I’ve really never read anything like it.
I think you have to have at least a minor interest in the ballet to get on with this book, or at least not be totally opposed to it as a concept. The novels takes place almost entirely between Kate/Gwen’s flat and the theatre, and most of the scenes involve some sort of dance. It is accessible though – you won’t need any of the terminology or routines to understand what’s happening. This is evident from the way Kate explains Swan Lake in the first few pages – she always ‘talks’ as though she’s explaining the plot to a beginner.
My one criticism would be the ending, which I think was just a little too neat and didn’t really answer any of my questions. I can’t decide how it should have ended, but I know that I felt just a little unsatisfied. I know this isn’t a particularly well-written post, but I just had to write about The Cranes Dance before I went to bed. It isn’t a perfect book, but it’s one that will stick with me for a long time.