‘Love You, Hate You: Ballet School Confidential’ by Charis Marsh

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Gail Sidonie Sobat

Voltaire wrote: “Let us read and let us dance – two amusements that will never do any harm to the world.”  With this in mind, I began Charis Marsh’s debut novel. Marsh certainly knows her ballet.  Technical ballet terms, balletic movement exercises, dance steps, prepping pointe shoes— all are admirably detailed throughout the novel.  We get a realistic sense of the rigours of a dancer’s day at VIBA, the Vancouver International Ballet Academy, and the competition inherent in the life of any dancer who dreams of entering the professional ballet world.

What we do not get a sense of is any depth of character. And characters are numerous in Marsh’s narrative. Indeed, many are drawn as little more than names, so it is hard to distinguish between all the minor players.  But my major reservation lies with the principal members of the academy.

Rarely have I met such an unattractive cast of shallow, unlikable, petty, even cruel characters in a young adult novel.  Kaitlyn Wardle is confident that she is the best of the academy’s dancers. Though talented, she lords a sense of superiority and entitlement over the others, who reasonably enough soon resent and ostracize her.  The bubble-headed and annoying Taylor Audley seems to have unhealthy eating patterns—a sugar addiction—and a narcissistic preoccupation with her own thinness, “I’m just so tiny!”  She, too, is unpopular and treated with disdain.  Then there is the bulemic Alexandra Dunstan, cruelly reviled by her teacher, flamed by online dance critics, but otherwise unsympathetic, largely because she, like the other girls, is so mean-spirited towards her dancing peers: “’They are both completely repulsive.  I wish they would…just look in the mirror and give up.’”

Male dancer Julian Reese comes off as civil, if banal.  He is the son of an apparently dope-head father and a free-spirited Buddhist mother, divorced and equally inattentive and absent parents.  But we are told little else, and neither do we observe how this affects Julian, unless we are to believe he is driven to a strip club where, under the guise of fake ID, he gets drunk—with his dance instructor and homestay guardian, Mr. Yu!—the night before the big Nutcracker performance, preparation for which shapes the plot of the entire narrative. Why would a dancer hoping to become a professional self-sabotage in such a manner?  Why would members of the company sabotage another dancer as they do with the theft of Kaitlyn’s costume and soaking of her pointe shoes just prior to performance?

Almost everyone in the company, eventually, is mistreated, shunned or ignored: Taylor, on the day of a group shopping spree; Kaitlyn, once she loses the role of Rose in The Nutcracker; Alexandra, for some unexplained reason after a jazz class.  Not to mention the myriad unpleasantries the older students exchange. Why are these people so nasty to each other?  Such behaviour, arguably, might be justified through the rendering of fully fleshed out characters.  But I was left bewildered.

Unfortunately, expressions of sarcasm and scathing criticism abound to the point that there is no single character that is in any way sympathetic, appealing or winsome. Witness some choice remarks:

Kaitlyn about Jonathan: “’Dumbass…did he actually think he was as good as her?’”

Alexandra about a new teacher: “’Oh god, another freak.”

Tristan and Alexandra’s racist undertone to Taylor, as they dine at a Japanese restaurant: “‘You are so weird,’ laughed Tristan. ‘Yeah, you totally fit in here,’ Alexandra said, laughing.”

Grace to a group of dancers, “’Hey! Faaattiiiiies!’”

Keiko to Kaitlyn about her white bodysuit: “’…it makes you look like a beached whale.’”

Tristan about Angela: “’…she’s half and half… the size of a horse and the brain and body type of a wart hog.’”

And the vitriol is not merely restricted to the students. There is but one teacher, no longer affiliated with VIBA, who treats the dancers with decorum and decency.  Perhaps the worst offender is Mr. Moretti: “‘You are the kind of student I hate to teach, the ones that make me want to quit.’” Granted, we are clearly not meant to like Mr. Moretti, but none of the academy instructors seem fit mentors of young impressionable dancers.

Certainly, literature doesn’t require sympathetic characters, but in young adult books, a story without someone to root for is tantamount to betrayal of the teen reader.

Love You, Hate You would have benefited from more time spent on developing characters, rendering settings, and segueing between scenes. And this young writer deserved a better editor, as the book is riddled with errors from the second page onwards.

In light of Voltaire’s recommendations for reading and dance, Love You, Hate You is neither a reading amusement nor an advocation of dance.  I can’t imagine why any dancer would choose to remain in such an academy, regardless of its credentials, or to fraternize with such toxic peers.  In all the scuttlebutt within Marsh’s narrative, where is the joy of dance?

Dundurn | 213 pages |  $12.99 | paper | ISBN #978-1554889617

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Gail Sidonie Sobat

Gail Sidonie Sobat's novel, Gravity Journal, was a 2009 White Pine Honour Book, a Moonbeam Gold Award winner, and a 2011 Stellar Award nominee. Her latest novel is Chance to Dance for You. She lives in Edmonton.