REVIEW: A minuet of love and misery


 By Christina Varrasso

If you’re interested in reading a novel filled with likable characters whose intertwining relationships will wrap neatly into a perfect happy ending, BALLROOM …is not for you.

However, if you are open to experiencing a beautifully written novel whose six characters’ piquant voices will invite you to a ballroom to share their passion for dancing and experience their deep seeded dreams and often unfulfilled desires, then put on your dancing shoes and get ready for a great story.

Alice Simpson is an accomplished video artist who taught drawing and design at Fashion Institute of Technology, the School of Visual Arts, the New School and Otis Parsons. She has won international acclaim for a series of handcrafted artist books about dance. She is a sculptor, painter, ballroom dancer, and writer.

In “Ballroom,” her debut novel, Ms. Simpson marries her love of art forms with her passion for dancing to create a story filled with complicated (sometimes unlikeable) characters and spectacular imagery that makes any novelist’s mouth water. Every Sunday night, Ms. Simpson’s six lost characters come together at the Ballroom, a once grand dance club in late 1990s New York City, to dance intimate tangos, salsa and waltzes. They know each other superficially, and it is only through hearing their interconnected stories in alternating chapters do we learn about their troubled lives and hidden desires as their paths cross both on and off the dance floor.

Harry Korn, age 65, lives on his pension and the money he earns giving private dance lessons to women he meets at the Ballroom. He is saving money to take the woman of his dreams, Maria Rodriguez, to Buenos Aires. He looks forward to his weekly dance lesson with her in his top-floor apartment.

When Harry shares a long held secret with her, the outcome is heart wrenching. Maria, a soon-to-be graduate from Barnard, struggles to keep her clandestine dance lessons with Harry from her father and from her dance partner and secret love, Angel Morez. Angel, despite his father’s plans for him, has a huge dream of opening a state-of-the-art dance studio with Maria as his future wife.

But he must answer a nagging question first: where does she insist on going alone every Friday night? Dry Joseph, whose last name he never divulges, is a bachelor and believes marriage to red-haired beauty Sarah Dreyfus will bring him happiness. But Sarah insecure and thrice divorced, wants ladies’ man Gabriel Katz to be husband number four.

But Gabriel is already married and attends the Ballroom to escape his own failing marriage to an alcoholic. But even on the dance floor he chases the ghost of his first dance partner: his deceased, manipulative, and obsessively doting mother.

Through the dances they share, the characters experience sexual tension but most never develop any true emotional intimacy. The Ballroom is a place where they chase hopes and dreams that are rarely fulfilled. We almost get the feeling that although they know what they want, they are too afraid to take the next step, if you will, to make their dreams a reality.

Ms. Simpson is brilliant at creating realistic characters that are flawed and have an effect on the reader. When the novel ends without any true unified ending, we are initially left feeling that the author missed something, that there should have been more, that some characters were left dangling in fictional abyss.

 But I think the author intended this. Life does not wrap up neatly for anyone. We dance through life day by day with hopes and aspirations of our own, some fulfilled, some not. We encounter and cross paths with people whom we never see or think about again. I once read that literature is supposed to speak to us, force us to question humanity and existentialism, to affect us. Alice Simpson accomplished this with “Ballroom.”—writes Christina Varrasso, author of “Running for Yellow.” She lives in Hampton.