Bright Burning Stars – Review

“Nothing shadows the art of dance. It’s a union of body, mind, and music. Classical dance is known for being ruthless. So commit to yourself and fight for your destiny.”

Bright Burning Stars takes us into the highly competitive and intense world of classical ballet training in the Paris Opera Ballet School. We meet Kate and Marine, two girls in the top division, where only one girl and one boy will receive the final prize: an invitation to dance with the Opera Company.

They’ve dedicated years to learning the art of ballet, pushing their bodies and minds to be the instruments they need them to be all while holding on to their friendship. But as the competition rises and time runs out, each girl must decide what they would do in order to win.

“Would you die for The Prize?”

Even if you aren’t familiar with the world of classical ballet, AK Small brings the school to life in a very relatable way. We get the details of the school, from the clothing they wear, to the tiny nooks and crannies where each student finds their own escape from the rigors of study. More importantly thought, we get an intimate examination of what this intense focus does to the body and mind of two teenage girl.

Through Marine and Kate, told through alternate narratives, we see the pressure of perfection and how it can translate to different personalities. I think this alone makes the novel highly relatable to teens, as no matter what school you attend, or where you live, the desire to fit in, to come to terms with blossoming crushes and changing friendships, these are all issues every teenager the world over faces.

Small also unflinchingly tackles much deeper and larger issues that many teenagers face. The beauty in this story isn’t in the issues she raises, but in how beautifully she showcases their onset and the lingering consequences these issues leave. It isn’t simply how the desire for perfection can trigger an eating disorder, but how difficult it can be to reverse the physical changes starving yourself causes. Small shows us how depression can feel. How it can grip every decision, even minor ones, so that its hold continues to lead down a spiral of negative emotions. She gives us an unflinching and raw view of grief, abandonment, hope, fear, desire, and how tricky the path of truly finding yourself is.

“I didn’t want to explain. I didn’t want to say that grief was like a recurring injury that erupted instinctively. People who’d never grieved didn’t know.”

Perhaps not every teenager will find themselves in a highly competitive world, but the issues of mental health, wanting to fit in, feeling left behind and not good enough, are all themes that will resonate on different levels with a diverse group of teens. The way Small brings these relatable emotions and struggles into a world that is foreign makes our glimpse all the more intimate and fascinating. I was hypnotized by the prose and captivated by the characters. Even when facing the blunt, ugly truth that propels the enigmatic beauty of ballet on the stage, Small makes sure that the entire experience remains firmly rooted in emotion. We feel for these girls. We understand them. We are them.

This debut is a stunning achievement, where we come to love the two girls, even when we disagree with their choices and don’t understand their behavior. They become relatable even as the world they choose to live in remains mystifying. Kate and Marine could be any teen where failing is unthinkable and the emotional stakes are even higher. This is not a novel where issues are only looked at on the surface. Instead we go deep into the heart and psyche of these girls. We go through their highs and lows, and in the end, are left reeling from an experience that is entirely human. Any reader who wants an emotional journey told through mesmerizing prose, will quickly fall in love with Bright Burning Stars.

Thank you Algonquin Young Readers for my copy and for including me on this blog tour! Highly, highly recommend.

“And besides, wasn’t there a difference, between splendor and intimacy?”

“Debut author Small, herself a dancer, brings authenticity (fascinating day-to-day details abound) to what it takes to flourish or wither amid the soaring highs and crushing lows of a competitive dance school while sensitively exploring the girls’ many emotional and physical extremes… Addictive, angst-y, and heartfelt.” Kirkus Reviews

As a young ballerina in Paris, young adult novelist A. K. Small studied at the famous Académie Chaptal and later danced with companies across the US. Inspired by the dancers from her childhood, Small weaves a vivid story of a fiercely competitive female friendship in her dazzling debut, Bright Burning Stars (Publication Date: May 21, 2019; $17.95). Following two teens fighting for center stage and a spot in the Opera’s prestigious corps de ballet, this page-turning novel explores the lengths it takes to turn talent into a career. A gifted new writer, Small brings the reader into the passionate world of ballet all while telling an engrossing story of female friendship.

 Kate and Marine have trained since childhood at the Paris Opera Ballet School where they formed an intense bond after respective family tragedies. Their friendship seems unshakeable until their final year when only one girl can be selected for a place in the Opera’s company. The physically demanding competition takes an emotional toll, and their support for each other starts to crumble. Marine’s eating disorder begins to control her life as she consumes less and dances more, and Kate discovers the depths of depression and the highs of first love as she falls for the school heartthrob—who also happens to be Marine’s dance partner.

As rankings tighten and each day is one step closer to the final selection, neither girl is sure just how far she’ll go to win. With nuance and empathy, the intense emotions of teenage years are amplified in Small’s debut as the girls struggle with grief, mental health issues, and relationships, all set against the glamorous backdrop of Paris.  

With the incredible success of the film Black Swan and dance reality TV shows today, dance seems to be more popular than ever. Kirkus Reviews praises the debut as “addictive, angst-y, and heartfelt” while Entertainment calls out that Bright Burning Stars is “notable for the way it tackles sensitive topics such as mental illness and eating disorders”. In Bright Burning Stars, debut author A. K. Small pens a stunning, propulsive story about girls at their physical and emotional extremes, the gutting power of first love, and what it means to fight for your dreams.

 A.K. Small was born in Paris. At five years old, she began studying classical dance with the legendary Max Bozzoni, then later with Daniel Franck and Monique Arabian at the famous Académie Chaptal. At thirteen, she moved to the United States where she danced with the Pacific Northwest Ballet for one summer in Seattle and with the Richmond Ballet Student Company for several years. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary and has an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When she’s not writing, she spends time with her husband, her puppy, and her three daughters, and practices yoga. Bright Burning Stars is her first novel. |      @aksmallwords |       @aksmallwords

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