Bunheads by Sophie Flack
October 10, 2011; Poppy
As a dancer with the ultra-prestigious Manhattan Ballet Company, nineteen-year-old Hannah Ward juggles intense rehearsals, dazzling performances and complicated backstage relationships. Up until now, Hannah has happily devoted her entire life to ballet.
But when she meets a handsome musician named Jacob, Hannah's universe begins to change, and she must decide if she wants to compete against the other "bunheads" in the company for a star soloist spot or strike out on her own in the real world. Does she dare give up the gilded confines of the ballet for the freedoms of everyday life? (courtesy of Goodreads)
Bunheads is the opportunity to live vicariously the life of a ballerina. As someone who was born with three left feet (you may not think that's possible, but if you see me dance, you'll understand), it is wonderful to become a dancer for 300 pages. In Bunheads, the reader follows Hannah, a 19 year old professional ballerina, who lives, sleeps, eats, and breathes ballet. It is such a foreign world that you feel like you're reading a fantasy or visiting a different country. Sophie Flack does a fabulous job of setting up the ballet world.
Ostensibly, Bunheads is about a young ballerina who thinks only of ballet until she meets a handsome, intriguing guy "from the outside" who introduces her to the real world, at which point said ballerina needs to decide whether she would rather continue ballet or venture out into the big world with lover-boy. But if you're looking mainly for plot heavy romance, go elsewhere. The rather unoriginal plot is the least interesting thing about Bunheads. Where the book excels is the immersive ballet experience.
Sophie Flack is a retired professional ballerina so she knows of which she writes. The book is supposedly mostly autobiographical. The world of professional ballet is one of sweat, tears, joy, competition, cruelty, hard work, heart break, opportunities, and ultimately the love of dancing. I loved how Hannah seemed representative of the typical dancer. She's not the star, but she's not the weakling. We saw day in and day out how much she sacrificed for ballet. She is 19 years old - old for YA - but in many ways as emotionally immature as a 14 year old. She has not really lived. She works incredibly hard - enduring hours of intense rehearsals only to finish it off with more exercise and a limited diet. All in the name of earning a better role.
The world of ballet is unimaginably competitive. Hannah's only friends are her co-dancers, who are also her competitors. The cattiness can get extreme. We see every girl, Hannah included, smile to a girl's face only to talk about her behind her back. A lot of reviewers criticize the book for featuring a "mean girl" main character, but I don't see it that way. With the exception of a few saints, I think most of us have talked about other people behind their backs, be they friends, family, or enemies. It's not a positive attribute, but it is a real one. I am very pleased to see a protagonist who is a fundamentally nice girl but isn't perfectly kind. In fact, I think it's one of my favorite parts of the book, simply because it's different. But the characters aren't always catty. There are many scenes where you see how the characters care for and support one another.
Bunheads is a endearing, fun book that takes you behind the scenes of a professional ballet. Regardless of the plot, the cultural experience is worth the read alone. I loved how Sophie characterized the world as demanding and unforgiving, but also showcased the beauty of dancing. We understand why Hannah stays with ballet, because she exudes her love for dancing. And we feel it too. Bunheads is one of the best athletic books I've read in a long time and I highly recommend it.