A fictional portrait of ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq’s struggle with polio—and George Balanchine.
As O’Connor’s main narrative opens in the summer of 1956, the New York City Ballet is on tour in Copenhagen when 27-year-old Tanny (as everyone calls her) is stricken with polio. George nurses her devotedly and pushes her almost as hard in physical therapy as he did in rehearsal, but they must face the fact that she will never walk or dance again, while his life continues to be consumed by ballet. Tanny, his fifth wife, is well aware of George’s habit of marrying his favorite ballerina, making great dances for her, then moving on to new inspiration. The balance of the novel traces the evolution of their complicated relationship: during the remaining 13 years of their marriage, when she tells herself “the other women mean nothing” and are merely fodder for his choreography; through the crisis sparked by his obsession with teenage Suzanne Farrell, which destabilizes NYCB and finally leads to their divorce; and in later years, when they resume a friendship that still has moments of jealousy and anger, but is founded on enduring love and long intimacy. Jerome Robbins, Diana Adams and Maria Tallchief are among the other real-life figures vividly depicted in the first-person narration O’Connor (A Company of Three, 2003, etc.) crafts for Tanny, but the center of attention is always George, captured in all his intermingled charm, cruelty and utter devotion to his muse—whoever she may be. We believe Tanny’s assertion that she holds a special place in his heart, but we sense that she knows there are special places there for all his women. Tanny has another lover later in life, and she finds fulfilling work writing books and coaching dancers; this is not a novel about victimization or the malevolence of genius, but rather about the painful accommodations all of us make for the things and people we love.
Thoughtful, tender and quite gripping, even for readers unfamiliar with the historical events the author sensitively reimagines.