Varley O’Connor has produced an odd paean to Tanaquil Le Clercq, George Balanchine’s fifth wife, who danced exquisitely and to international acclaim until she was stricken with polio at the age of 27 on the New York City Ballet’s European tour. She never walked again but she survived and rebuilt a life for herself, a life with Balanchine and her own indomitable spirit at its core. The slightly surreal sense you get reading the book is because there is a vibrant, first-person character telling the story who feels absolutely true. The fictionalized Tanny seems like someone it would be refreshing and delightful to know–sophisticated, observant, wry, funny, caring and brave. She isn’t a diva about the tragedy of her useless limbs and lost career, her celebrity, and the people who fawned over her as long as she lived. She is in love with Balanchine, crushed by his eventual public infatuation with Suzanne Farrell, reluctant to divorce him, resolute about getting on with her life.
The dialog is so good I wished it wasn’t invented–although O’Connor lists prodigious research that included many interviews and remembered conversations. The insights about Balanchine, the artist and the man, are so compelling that I hoped they were true. Jerome Robbins is a major character and a fascinating character study. It was a page-turner, not in the sense of constant crisis, although there was that, but as an interesting recollection of lives lived large and in service to great passions. In short, Tanaquil Le Clercq’s life makes a fabulous story and I wanted to be sure the impressions of her I got were the truth. I suppose some were and some weren’t.
But read this book, if you have any interest in the world of classical dance and the process of making performing art. And take away from it that people can survive their most vivid nightmares with grace and determination–and find large and small reasons for gratitude and good humor every day. The cat is a winner. The details of what it is like to deal with even the simplest daily tasks with a disability is instructive. The inspirations for making dance read like the real thing. Pretty good book about a woman who was poised to become one of the biggest and most enduring stars the world of ballet had ever seen–and then matched the demands of that world, and the towering Balanchine, with her energy when her body could no longer keep up with her spirit.
The Master’s Muse: A Novel Varley O’Connor | Scribner 2012