Simpson brings to life the vibrant essence of the Ballroom, a once-grand dance club in late 1990s New York City, in her debut novel.Every Sunday night, Simpson’s six characters head to the Ballroom; they all know each other on a superficial level but don’t share the deeper secrets and longings they carefully hide behind their groomed facades. We get to know them as we hear their stories in alternating chapters, as in Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Harry, old and alone, lives a private life in his top-floor apartment; when he shares a secret with young Maria, it eventually comes to light with tragic results. Maria finds salvation in her longtime dance partner, Angel. Dull Joseph, never married, yearns for insecure Sarah, who’s been married three times, while Sarah dreams of married playboy Gabriel. There remains an emotional divide between partners, despite the physical intimacy of the tangos, salsas and waltzes they share. There’s sexual tension but little true closeness. The Ballroom is a place of rampant hopes and dreams that seldom get fulfilled, in spite of the dancers’ efforts. The characters strive for what they want, but most have no real sense of how to get it. Simpson is a master at creating realistic characters who are flawed, a bit unappealing and yet sympathetic. Life goes on much in the manner in which it began. But this isn’t a bad thing—it feels real, even refreshing, not to have a neatly wrapped, feel-good ending—but rather a plain old life-goes-on.—wrote Kirkus Reviews
Readers who enjoy seeing inside the hearts and minds of others will relish sharing the lives of Simpson’s creations.
Original Kirkus Reviews article
A novel by Alice Simpson
Dance is tough to write about. It is a living artform; an entity and practice that is primarily experienced visually. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible to describe dance on the literary page and to do it well. A good writer can relay dance and stylized movement with carefully chosen words and phrases – the combination of sentences and paragraphs conjuring, suggesting and recreating the real-life experience of dance and choreography. A great writer goes one-step further and can actually construct a whole scene in the reader’s mind – from the people, movements and the interactions all the way to the clothes and the scents. Alice Simpson’s first novel, “Ballroom”, (available this September from Harper Collins) is an example of this latter outcome. From start to finish, “Ballroom” is a perfectly choreographed dance, where the reader and the story meet, connect and then finally, part. It tells the tale of six independent yet interdependent characters who all share a deep love for ballroom dance. And while the language itself is not particularly theatrical, “Ballroom” reads much like a play, where these six lives unfold on a large stage, or in this case, the dance floor.
In the first six brief chapters, the reader is introduced to each of the characters, as they are individually readying for a shared weekly ritual – Sunday evening at ‘The Ballroom’, a social dance club. In this quick glimpse, we learn that Harry, Maria, Sarah, Joseph, Gabriel and Angel are a group of very different, yet very similar personalities. Each carries a distinct history; a unique and specific reality that has shaped who they are in the present day. Intrigue, circumstance, coincidence and trouble plagues these vulnerable life stories, which over the novel’s forty-seven short chapters, eventually become connected and intertwined. It is clear that the six all have a passion, dedication and commitment to the art of ballroom dance. But their commonality goes much further than that. In their own way, they are all isolated souls, who want their lives to be different. They are all looking for someone or something that will bring them fulfillment. Yet, their loneliness is coupled with moments of wistful imagination. For this community, there is a disconnect between who they are in their daily lives and who they become when they dance. And they are searching for a reconciliation between these two states of being. Ballroom dance has become that place of possibility, of departure, of hope, of happiness and even if only for a brief second, of belonging.
For her debut novel, Simpson has crafted an approachable, entertaining and easy read, yet injected the necessary dose of complexity required for an adult audience. Each chapter begins with a whimsical, excerpted quote from an instruction manual – primarily ballroom, but also snippets of general etiquette. While a fun, playful touch, it also grounds each chapter in the narrative theme. From a structural perspective, the most interesting aspect of “Ballroom” is that Simpson has built a true ensemble cast where no one person is the protagonist. While this certainly allows for interesting and unexpected twists and turns, it also permits dance itself to emerge as the main character of the story.
“Ballroom” is definitely for folks who love books about dance. And because it is a collection of human experiences, it will equally be enjoyed by anyone who loves fiction. Alice Simpson’s “Ballroom” is a great addition to your ‘end of summer’ reading list.
Posted by Heather Desaulniers, 8/14/2014