Wilson’s debut novel weaves together the past and present of one dancer’s life: first, as a young girl in 1970s New York forgoing her childhood to become an elite ballerina, and then as an adult trying to rebuild her life in the wake of her accumulated sacrifices.
Mira Able is an 11-year-old forced to grow up fast. Her home in Brooklyn is in disrepair, her father disappeared, and her mother is unpredictable at best. Mira takes care of herself, but she wants to be seen. Her ballet classes provide structure as well as an outlet for her anger. The harder she works, the stronger she gets, the more she is praised. Then, she gets her wish. Maurice, a crippled older man and a patron of the ballet, notices her. He sees her talent and wants to nurture it. Some of her fellow students warn Mira that he’s “creepy,” but she thrives on his attention. He instills in her “the understanding of what you have to give up to be beautiful.” Soon, Mira is attending the elite School of American Ballet. She's no longer a child—she's a ballerina, Maurice’s “Bella.” Flash-forward to the present day, and Mira, now Kate, a dance historian, is feeling unhinged after learning she might lose her teaching position. Seeking resolution, she goes back to New York to confront her past self, to heal wounds left by years of sacrifice in the name of beauty and ballet. In these two storylines, Wilson develops a compelling theme of loss and rebirth. Mira’s story is fueled by a rage that burns intensely; the sacrifice, the dark side of her pursuit, will touch readers to the core. Because Mira’s story is so strong, Kate’s pales in comparison, and her first-person narration feels strangely distant. Wilson does close some of this distance in the end, as Kate’s story comes full circle: “He gave me ashes. But first he showed me the fire.”
This portrayal of a ballerina’s transformation and sacrifice burns with the beauty of fire: it’s powerful, it’s destructive, and it dares you to try and look away.