Book: “Tiny Pretty Things” by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton
Publishing Info: HarperTeen, May 2015
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: Gigi, Bette, and June, three top students at an exclusive Manhattan ballet school, have seen their fair share of drama. Free-spirited new girl Gigi just wants to dance—but the very act might kill her. Privileged New Yorker Bette’s desire to escape the shadow of her ballet star sister brings out a dangerous edge in her. And perfectionist June needs to land a lead role this year or her controlling mother will put an end to her dancing dreams forever. When every dancer is both friend and foe, the girls will sacrifice, manipulate, and backstab to be the best of the best.
Review: I honestly couldn’t tell you what it is, but there is something about the “Drama and mean girl bitchery happening at a boarding school/organization for some kind of art form” trope that I am a complete and total sucker for. It doesn’t necessarily HAVE to be about ballet (after all the movie “Fame” isn’t strictly about that art form and I LOVE it), but it’s just an added bonus if it is. “Center Stage” is by no means a good movie, but if I stumble upon it on the TV I am guaranteed to watch it. “Black Swan” messed me up real good and I could have taken even MORE mental anguish and paranoia from it. Because the competition of being the best within the strict and narrow world of ballet makes people do AWFUL THINGS, according to this trope, and I live for it.
So of course “Tiny Pretty Things” was going to appeal to me. The fact that it has an underlying mystery is really just a bonus, I would have picked it up regardless. But “Tiny Pretty Things” also surprised me in a lot of pleasant ways. In a book that could have easily been about a bunch of spoiled and rich white girls (as the ballet world and culture is disproportionately white), authors Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton instead represented a rather diverse cast of characters, and the struggles they all face trying to fit into the ballet box. And they do this seamlessly, weaving these everyday moments of frustration or microaggressions against them into the bigger picture, so their struggles are just a natural, and yet exposed, part of their day to day realities. And there are a LOT of themes here, and since I want to break them all down, we’re going to have a lot to talk about.
One of the themes this book talks about is discrimination in the ballet world, both racial and sexual orientation. Gigi, being the only black student at the school, is always being put in the ‘Other’ role by those around her, be it fellow dancers or even the administrators. Her talents and merits are always being picked apart by those around her, and there is always a question of how much she deserves the roles that she’s getting. June, too, isn’t immune to such treatment, even if it’s to a different extent. Her biracial ethnicity has left her without a group, and since she has never known who her father is she is feeling even more like she has never known her true identity. And while they aren’t given many perspective moments, it’s mentioned that there are a number of the Korean dancers at this school who are absolutely fantastic at dance… but never get lead roles, and rarely get solos, because they just don’t ‘fit’ the part. Not only are racial biases spoken of, but so are those of sexuality and the idea of masculine and feminine ideals. There are two LGBTQIA+ characters in this book, and while neither of them have perspective chapters, you do get to learn a bit about them through the other girls eyes. William is gay, and is definitely one of the best male dancers at the school. But again, because he doesn’t meet the physical (and yes, sexual preference) ideal of how a male ballerina should be, he too is denied lead roles. And Sei-Jin, June’s enemy, is a closeted lesbian. She torments June but is also terrified that June will tell the world that she’s a lesbian, therein ruining her chances, in her mind, at stardom. I really appreciated that this was touched on in this book when it easily could have just been ignored.
Along with discrimination there is the obsession with perfection and how far you go to achieve it. Be it the eating disorders that June and another girl named Liz are living with, or the Adderall addiction that Bette has, the competition runs all of these girls completely ragged. And this is why even Bette, mean awful HORRIBLE Bette, is a character that I can’t completely hate. She is certainly entitled and spoiled and bordering on psychopathic, but it is because this is all she has been raised to know, even since she was a little girl. She has seen her perfect older sister rise into prominency in the ballet world, and now their emotionally abusive and alcoholic mother wants both of her daughters to be stars. So Bette, who has been raised to be a star, is driven to the extremes beyond her Adderall addiction to achieve this perfection, and starts to spiral into madness when it just can’t quite be achieved. I really liked that this story addresses the fact that these CHILDREN are being completely put through the ringer, and that most of them aren’t going to make it in the ways that they are being pushed to do so.
Which leads us into the mystery of this book (as yes, there is indeed a mystery). Since Gigi is new and black and doing phenomenally well, someone starts harassing her and tormenting her. And while it very well could be Bette (and some of it is Bette because she’s the worst), some of these pranks and taunts are downright violent. While I may have a pretty good idea as to who it is (this is the first in a duology, so it hasn’t been revealed yet), I’m not quite certain. And I love the fact that I’m not quite certain! There are other little mysteries in this book that are a bit more obvious(such as the identity of June’s father, which I won’t spoil here, but it’s really not too hard to figure out), and while that’s fine, the mystery in itself is pretty run of the mill. The joy and power of this book isn’t in the mystery, though there are lots of pretty amazingly over the top moments of drama that surround it. The joy is definitely in the complex issues that Charaipotra and Clayton put in here, as well as, yes, the juicy juicy drama. Whenever a book about ballerinas ends up with one of said ballerinas getting glass shards left in her ballet shoes, you KNOW that I’m going to be a total sucker for it.
I really really enjoyed “Tiny Pretty Things” and will certainly be picking up “Shiny Broken Pieces” as soon as possible. It’s definitely soapy and dramatic, but it uses this premise to talk about other, very relevant problems within the ballet culture. So it’s a double win for me. Definitely pick it up if you want something fun, light, but thoughtful.
Rating 9: Steeped with soapy and sudsy drama, but also taking on some pretty relevant issues within the ballet world, “Tiny Pretty Things” is both a trashy mystery romp and a relevant commentary. A perfect quick read.
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