I love, love, absolutely love ballet stories. There’s something about the glitz and glamour of dancing itself contrasted with the hours upon hours of literal blood, sweat and tears that dancers have to put in. And when it comes to books and movies, these usually come served with a dose of romance, fierce rivalry, and lots of real-life issues we non-dancers rarely have to think about. (For example, in this book, the lead student in the ballet class is called The Ruler, because she is shaped like a ruler when viewed from the side.)
So Bright, Burning Stars checks a lot of my must-read boxes. It’s set in a French boarding school. It’s about an elite class of ballet dancers. And it focuses on the friendship AND rivalry between two of the school’s top female dancers: Marine Duval and Kate Sanders. Marine is a quiet, ‘nice’ and naturally talented girl who wants to be a dancer mostly as an homage to her twin brother who died a few years ago. Kate is a fiercely ambitious American who grew up poor and whose mother left the family, and who views a dance career as an escape from the realities of her childhood. Only the very top student in their class can move on to the next level at the end of the year, so both girls must battle each other — and the aforementioned Ruler — for that spot.
Bright, Burning Stars features a lot of the usual dance story tropes, and does so very well. We learn about the intense pressure ballet students face to lose weight and perform at superhumanly high levels, and how as a result, these students confront eating disorders, drug use, an unexpected and potentially career-ending incident. There’s also a rivalry over a boy that threatens their friendship, though to the story’s credit, the rivalry over the boy they nicknamed “The Demigod” was less out of the usual romantic attraction, and more because The Demigod is so talented that performing with him elevates his female partners’ performances, and therefore, having chemistry with him can help your chances at being the top student.
I love the characters of Martine and Kate, and how their strengths and vulnerabilities complement each other. For example, we learn how Martine has a natural musicality and talent for dance that Kate lacks, yet Kate has the intense driving ambition and star quality that Martine doesn’t exhibit. I also love the strength of their friendship, and even when they were at odds with each other, I really wanted them to reconcile.
I also really love the way the author talked about the dancing. She used a lot of terms I’m not super familiar with, but she also gave a very strong sense of the magic in the movements. I especially loved reading the sections where Martine loses herself in the music — in one scene, to a Jay-Z track — and I would’ve loved to see that unfold on screen.
I was initially unsure how to feel about the ending, as it wasn’t the super perfect happy ending I’d been rooting for. But after a bit more reflection, I think it was probably the best ending for both characters, and very true to who each of them has become. They both had to give up a bit of what they wanted, and yet still ended up with something that they very much dreamed about. They also both grew a lot over the course of the novel, and I thought both had strong character arcs. Overall, like the best ballet stories, Bright, Burning Stars took a turn towards a darker side of this reality than I anticipated, yet also treated us to the magic and glamour that makes ballet so wonderful in the first place.
Thank you to Thomas Allen & Son for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.