Ferré bases her third novel written in English on a real historical incident: ballerina Anna Pavlova’s prolonged stay in Puerto Rico (where she was performing) when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917.
What a bland, disappointing book, almost totally devoid of the swirling momentum and vivid specificity that made Ferré’s generational sagas The House on the Lagoon (1995) and Eccentric Neighborhoods (1998) so memorable. Not that “Madame” (as she’s addressed by her former student and all-purpose handmaiden Masha, who narrates) isn’t a charismatic and appealing figure: a woman of pronounced populist sentiments despite the image projected by her trademark “ . . . solo The Dying Swan . . . [as] the personification of the aristocrats’ agony.” The problems are created by the heavy weight of exposition that clogs the first hundred pages, and by imperfectly made connections between Pavlova’s love affair with (the much younger) revolutionary dilettante Diamantino Marquez (“For the first time Madame was insisting that Love was more important than Art,” Masha complains), and an awkward subplot in which Diamantino’s arranged marriage to an heiress is threatened by the presence of his rival, her father’s illegitimate son. The inflamed passions and colorful set pieces (including climactic doings at the Juan Ponce De Lémon Carnival) do help, but can’t overcome a superfluity of undigested research, which frequently takes the form of leaden references to the ballerina’s contemporaries (Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Isadora Duncan, et al), and largely pointless cameo appearances by such celebrities as “Lone Eagle” American pilot Daniel Dearborn (in other words, Charles Lindbergh). One gets the impression that Ferré undertook this novel without having decided how Anna Pavlova, the Russian Revolution, the class struggle in Puerto Rico, and a woman’s right to express herself artistically and sexually (a constant undercurrent theme) were logically—much less fictionally—related.
Ferré at her best (as in Eccentric Neighborhoods) can be a soaring, marvelous writer. But Flight of the Swan never gets off the ground.