For all its beauty, ballet can only be born out of pain. And in the violence lurking beneath the exquisite art form, Megan Abbott found the twisted soul of The Turnout (out now via Putnam).

The Dare Me author's latest thriller (for which eOne has already snapped up the TV rights) chronicles a tense winter season at a run-down ballet school operated by two sisters with a fraught history. Dara and Marie are two sides of the same coin, inseparable since their childhood spent in their mother's dance studio, where their bodies — and minds — were warped in pursuit of the relentless perfection of ballet.

Now adults having lost their parents, Dara and Marie, with the help of Dara's husband, Charlie, teach in the same place they were all once trained themselves — gentle Mademoiselle Marie instructing the littlest ballerinas, strict Madame Dara keeping the older girls in (perfect, parallel) line, and Monsieur Charlie, his own old performance injuries having destroyed his dancer's body, maintaining the business side of things. When a terrible accident endangers the dilapidated studio that houses the trio's passion and livelihood, however, the man tasked with rebuilding it disrupts their fragile world, threatening to unravel it entirely.

Megan Abbott, The Turnout
Megan Abbott is author of 'The Turnout'
| Credit: Drew Reilly; Penguin

The story takes place against the backdrop of the school's annual production of The Nutcracker, and the novel takes its structure from the stages of preparation for the show, beginning with casting — all the girls at the school are desperate to be Clara, the young heroine taken on a mysterious journey with a magical dream prince. And the ballet itself, a strange and wonderful tale of desire awakened and innocence lost, is also in constant conversation with the sisters' drama, as the delicate Marie become entangled with the leering giant of a contractor, Derek. The unlikely affair fractures the girls' careful relationship, creating an opening for the oldest, darkest secrets of their unconventional childhood to break free.

Abbott's prose can lean toward high drama worthy of Tchaikovsky (occasionally to its detriment), and the sisters' distorted psyches, unnaturally directed from their infancy toward an uncompromising art form, are rightly examined more in their dark depths than they are portrayed with excessive nuance. As the central quartet's dangerous dance of sex, betrayal, and violence spirals to its thrilling conclusion, its strongest elements are not the trickier puzzle pieces solving the book's mysteries, but the arresting sequences that read almost like ballet, which is hyper-expressive but wordless, depicting surreal extremes, watched from afar. (Even the very image of the sisters, perfect foils described from the beginning as light, soft Marie and dark, strong Dara, recall the feminine contrast at the heart of another iconic ballet.)

The novel's greatest triumph is truly in its vivid, unforgettable setting. Abbott is a master of atmosphere, and in the blood, sweat, tears, bruises, ripped toenails, broken bones, rivalries, desires, and tutu-pink dreams that fill the studio throughout Nutcracker season, she creates a world of almost unbearable tension, pirouetting ever further into darkness. Grade: B+

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