Megan Abbott’s new “Nutcracker noir”
Megan Abbott is the high priestess of dark tales about complex women.
Her past novels plumb the worlds of high-school cheerleading, academic research into severe PMS, and competitive gymnastics. She served as showrunner and executive producer on the television series Dare Me, based on her book of the same name, and she was a staff writer on the HBO drama series The Deuce. Now comes the Edgar-winning author’s newest title, The Turnout, set in a ballet studio during the all-consuming Nutcracker season.
The Turnout follows two sisters, Dara and Marie. They grew up at the Durant School of Dance, which their late mother founded, and now run the studio with Charlie, Dara’s husband and a former star dancer. Revealing the ugliness that underpins onstage beauty may feel like a familiar theme, but Abbott has much more to show her readers here, and plenty of surprises.
Each of the main trio plays a role in the family and the business. Charlie is the quiet stalwart, managing the studio’s books along with his chronic pain. Dara is a stern taskmaster, who insists that her pupils marshal the discipline required to excel in the spotlight. Marie is the flighty one, who soothes feelings and battered limbs with a treat and kind words.
When Marie breaks rank, she does so spectacularly.
A fire brings a team of contractors on-site, led by Derek, who Marie finds brutishly appealing. Their affair spring-loads a cascade of disasters, though exactly how all splinters apart is far from apparent for most of the book.
Abbott carefully sets her plot traps, stitching an intricate web of secrets that stretches back to the sisters’ childhood. But it’s her ability to chronicle shadow-side impulses, often tinged with sex, that makes The Turnout so compulsively readable.
Here’s Marie ignoring her students to tryst sweatily upstairs with Derek. Here’s Dara judging silently, insisting things be her way: “You must be firm, their mother always said, or they will dominate you.” Here are jealous girls sabotaging young Bailey, chosen as the Nutcracker’s star that year. Here is Derek insinuating himself into their lives with his large paws and even larger demands.
And here is Dara’s memory of her mother talking about the excruciating first time she achieved the title’s ballet stance: “Suddenly, something snapped inside and her hips and legs felt infinitely pliable, soft taffy, a slinky expanding.
“Her hips, hot and newly supple, opened like a book from the center of her body. It felt glorious and so painful she saw stars.
“But she did not stop.”
Nor do Dara and Marie, each caroming between a toxic familiar and explosive, destructive change. Like the original Hoffman Nutcracker story that inspired the much more family-friendly ballet, The Turnout shows us the dark truth simmering just beneath the surface.
(Putnam/Penguin, Aug. 3, 2021)