I was initially intrigued by the premise of this book because of Bunheads, another novel about the ballet that I absolutely loved. Tiny Pretty Things is in many ways a pretty similar story but whereas Bunheads is told from a single POV, Tiny Pretty Things opts for multiple narration by a host of different characters. Both books, I thought, were really good at lifting the veil on a very closed off world and showing the life behind the curtains.
So this novel has several characters telling their own stories that all feed into a main storyline. Gigi, one of the first characters we’re introduced to, is an incredibly talented ballerina who almost immediately lands the lead roles despite being a black girl in a largely white oriented culture. June, a long time student at the ballet school where the story is set, has bulimia that emerged from her efforts to push herself into becoming a better ballerina. She is also Korean and experiences the same racism that Gigi faces. Bette, who quickly became my favourite out of the three girls, is the younger sister of a brilliant ballerina and finds herself displaced when Gigi’s talent outshines her own. Although these three girls can be considered the main characters, there are even more characters who don’t have POVs but have their own stories going on in the background which are all pretty interesting.
So I want to just mention the depictions of racism and eating disorders in this book. The former is discussed with a kind of shocking frankness – black and Asian ballerinas are often passed over for lead roles simply because they lack the pure white skin that is considered the ‘ideal’ for lead ballerinas in prestigious ballets. The book even mentions a Russian saying about ‘snowy white skin (paraphrased)’ that has bled into ballet culture because of the enormous influence of Russia in the ballet. It was repellent to read about but nevertheless absolutely fascinating. On the depiction of eating disorders – the descriptions are graphic to show the limits these girls go to in order to survive in such a cutthroat world. There are scenes in which the girls are weighed, with 100 pounds being the acceptable weight and how, for many of the girls, that is simply too heavy to be acceptable in a world in which your performance depends on being able to carry your own weight. June is at the extremes with her bulimia but she is by no means the only girl with a complex about food – every character we see in this book has an aversion to food, be it skipping meals or throwing up everything they’ve eaten in order to stay ‘light’. Bette also takes pills that are meant for sufferers of ADHD in order to narrow her focus when she’s dancing, and this is pretty much the norm for just about every student at the ballet school. It is honestly frightening. And how the book points out that all of this is mostly because there are so many female ballerinas competing amongst themselves to be the best, while male ballet dancers don’t feel the same pressure simply because there aren’t as many of them to compete with – the undeniable undercurrent of sexism is felt, at times very heavily, in this book.
Tiny Pretty Things is an intriguing read as well as being a good example of characters being interesting while not being likeable. I especially enjoyed the conflict between the girls that escalated from the petty to the downright murderous because you know, I do enjoy stories about teenage girls being dangerous and wild. My only real criticisms lie with the character Gigi and the ending of the book. Gigi, for me, was entirely too cutesy and sweet for a story like this one – it was too much like a good girl/bad girl vibe and I don’t care about that at all. Girls are layered and do terrible things to each other all the time, largely because of the dichotomy between the ‘ideal’ girl and how girls view themselves as being unable to live up to that ideal despite the immense pressure upon them to do so. In a story with such excellent depictions of female characters, Gigi felt like a constant step backward. I don’t mind stories in which innocent, naive girls are thrown in with the wolves if it means that they evolve but Gigi remains stagnant and boring for the entire story. LESS BELLA SWAN, MORE CLARKE GRIFFIN is what I’m saying here. And that ending? What was that? It was the poorest cliffhanger I’ve read in a while, and so sudden that I turned the remainder of pages, convinced that something was missing. It was honestly so rushed and felt lazy, as though the authors had just stopped caring by that point. But other than these two points, I do feel like this was a pretty good book that is just different enough to stand out.