“Rebel on Pointe”: an independent spirit in a traditional world

Lee Wilson-book coverOn the first page of her memoir, dancer Lee Wilson voices an important nugget of truth in a single line:

“In the 1950s and 1960s, many people thought of dance as a pastime for pretty young girls before they settled down and got married.” (p.1)

Women in the Fifties and Sixties had far fewer career choices than they do now and far fewer than men in the same time period. Wilson reminds us that, although women, such as Lucia Chase and Agnes de Mille, and gay men, such as Antony Tudor and Jerome Robbins, were the dance company directors and choreographers, it was a white straight man who was acknowledged as transforming ballet for America: George Balanchine. (p. 97)

Throughout the memoir, Wilson – who spent the bulk of her ballet career in Europe – is an interested observer in the American dance scene. She places it in historical context for us and gently reminds us that the world is a far larger place than most Americans imagine, such as she discovered when President Kennedy was shot while she was in France. Expecting to find a special edition of the local paper, she was told, “Of course not…this isn’t America.”(p.171)

A native of Delaware, Wilson grew up with three younger brothers in a traditional home. Her father worked and her mother raised the children. But from a young age, Wilson knew she wanted more than that. During a visit to her father’s office one day, where she saw him being waited on by his secretary and lounging in air-conditioned comfort while Wilson’s mother worked her fingers to the bone at home, she realized, “I wanted to be a person who worked.” (p. 5)

From the outset, she was determined.

She was a small woman, with a self-described non-ballerina body, and didn’t have a wealthy family supporting her. She was up against tough odds to become a professional dancer but she did it through hard work and sheer willpower. After lessons in Delaware and later Philadelphia, she auditioned for Julliard but did not get in. Her mother brought her to the Professional Children’s School in New York City so she could graduate early and get moving on her professional career as a dancer. She also took classes at Ballet Theatre School (which would funnel students into American Ballet Theatre) and thrived.

Photo Credit Bonnefon

Wilson in Bordeaux Opera Ballet , Photo Credit Bonnefon

But when it came time to graduate and audition for companies, the market in New York City was either unstable (ABT) or unappealing (NYCB). This line from Wilson sums up her opinion at the time quite succinctly:

“The more I thought about…the New York City Ballet, the less I could see myself in an environment apparently dominated by one man.” (p.65)

And so, when the opportunity arose to move to Europe (her father was offered a job in Geneva, Switzerland), she jumped for it and thus began her career in the international world of ballet.

Throughout the book, Wilson brings the reader back to the financial practicality of being a dancer. While Wilson’s mother might have been supportive of her career in her own way, Wilson’s father made all the money – and all the decisions about what to do with it. With each step she took, she needed to prove to him that she was deserving of an allowance to buy pointe shoes and take ballet classes. As an underage dancer, her goal was always to become a working professional, with a steady contract and income. Naively she believed that she could live on a dancer’s salary and would be hired full-time with a company when she came of age. In each city and with each job she worked more and made more contacts, but she was only eking out a living along the way. Several times her mother simply said no, that her father would not pay for something and that it was up to Lee herself – at the young age of sixteen or seventeen – to figure out a way to pay for it. That’s a lot of responsibility to place on a child’s shoulders, especially one living in another country.

Despite the financial limitations, the careful parceling out of funds to pay for decent meals and proper housing, Wilson enjoyed a career highlighted by dancing with Rosella Hightower and in front of European royalty. She saw ballets and operas and took class beside Rudolf Nureyev. After returning to the United States, she danced on Broadway in “A Chorus Line” and “Oklahoma” among many others. She closes her memoir with this line:

“At a time when society clipped the wings of women and pushed them into subservient positions, dance allowed women to soar.”

Lee Wilson graciously agreed to answer some questions I had after reading her memoir.


Leigh Purtill (LP): Did your independence have any impact on your mother’s life?

Lee Wilson (LW): I don’t know if my choices had any impact on Mom, but her choices had a great impact on me. When Mom was twenty-one, she spoke five languages fluently. During World War II, she was an officer in U.S. Army Intelligence based in Washington, D. C., where her job involved breaking codes. But at the end of the war, women were pushed out of the workplace, and Mom, like most other women, got married and became a housewife. She homeschooled my brothers and me and washed out diapers in the toilet. She was financially dependent on Dad and a second-class citizen in society. At the ballet, women could be the stars. Men and women were equally respected and equally paid, and I wanted to be part of that magical world.

LP: How do you feel ballet has changed for women in the decades beyond those covered in your memoir?

LW: In mainstream society, women have more power than they had in the 1960s. In ballet, they have less. The most powerful position in a ballet company is the artistic director because she chooses the repertoire and hires the choreographers and the dancers. In the 1960s, Lucia Chase ran Ballet Theatre; Dame Alicia Markova was director of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, and Rebekah Harkness founded the Harkness Ballet. Today the ratio of female to male artistic directors is much lower than in the 1960s, and the vast majority of choreographers are still male.

Photo Credit Arks Smith

Wilson in Oklahoma, Photo Credit Arks Smith

LP: Do you see new challenges for ballet to remain relevant? Do you see the differences between Europe and the US as clearly as they were when you were dancing?

LW: Ballet will remain relevant as long as choreographers tell stories that audiences want to see. According to a 2011 Dance/USA survey, women buy 77% of ballet tickets, so successful ballets must appeal to women. Since 35% of female ticket buyers have children in the home, some new ballets should appeal to families. This doesn’t mean that ballets can’t have sex and violence. Romeo and Juliet has both, but it also has a sympathetic, three-dimensional female lead, a fast-moving plot, and an inspiring, cathartic ending as the warring families reconcile. The most popular and enduring ballets are story ballets, so as long as choreographers come up with compelling stories and tell them musically and dramatically, ballet will be relevant. Dancers in major companies can perform dazzling pirouettes, thrilling leaps, and jaw-dropping lifts. The best of the best are extraordinary actors as well, so the execution of the choreography is in excellent hands.

There are still big differences between the U.S. and Europe. People in the U. S. glorify individual achievement, fame, and money. In Europe, the focus is on things that benefit the community: infrastructure, health, education, and the arts. The difference in focus affects everything from how and what people eat to the cost of ballet tickets or a college education to the number of homicides in schools, churches, and movie theatres.

LP: Your memoir ends with a note that you transitioned to a career in Hollywood. Can you expand a bit on that?

LW: My last Broadway show was “Meet Me in St. Louis.” After it closed, I was given the opportunity to write a holiday special, “The Elf Who Saved Christmas.” When it aired, the show received excellent ratings and reviews, and USA Network requested a sequel, “The Elf and the Magic Key.” Shortly after that, I wrote a TV movie, “The Miracle of the Cards,” which is based on a true story. It took forever to get the life story rights, but I produced the film in 2001, and it won the 2002 Epiphany Prize.

Photo by Lesley Bohm

Photo by Lesley Bohm

Lee Wilson made her debut as a classical ballet dancer at the age of sixteen in a command performance for Prince Rainier and Princess Grace in Monte Carlo. She danced for gun-toting revolutionaries in Algeria, American aristocrats at the Metropolitan Opera, and a galaxy of stars on Broadway. She worked with many of the great dancers and choreographers of the late 20th century, including Nureyev, Bruhn, Markova, Hightower, Ailey, and Bennett. She is an award-winning actress/writer/producer.

She currently lives in Los Angeles and can be reached through her website: www.leewilsonpro.com.

Her memoir, Rebel On Pointe can also be purchased through Amazon.

Does It Really Take “84 Ribbons” To Become a Ballet Soloist?

In Paddy Eger’s novel, 84 Ribbons: A Dancer’s Journey, young Marta Selbryth travels from the small town where she lives with her widowed mother to Billings, Montana to join the Intermountain Ballet Company, a fictitious second-tier ballet company. From the start, she makes awkward mistakes, such as arriving several days late because of an error in a letter and later, being caught mimicking the company’s stern artistic director, Madame Cosper.

84 Ribbons by Paddy Eger
But Marta is determined to make her mark and she believes that it will take accumulating 84 ribbons, or 42 pairs of pointe shoes, before she will get a solo role with the company. Considering how quickly dancers go through shoes, that number seems awfully low – to her credit, Marta does realize the naivete of that statement later on in the book.

84 Ribbons is a very sweet story about a young ballet dancer. Marta doesn’t face a tremendous amount of adversity when she transitions from her small town to Billings. Every obstacle is overcome rather quickly and by someone else, rather than Marta herself. For instance, she has no place to live but then magically finds a boarding house where the owner, Mrs. B, not only sets her up with her own basement dance studio, but also lowers Marta’s rent when Marta offers to bake for the boarders. With the exception of Carol, the only other woman in the boarding house, every single person in Marta’s life finds her charming, beautiful, talented, kind and worthy of every possible wonderful thing that could possibly ever happen to an individual.

Marta quickly makes two best friends in the company, who only want good things for her and who don’t seem to ever be jealous of any role or attention Marta gets. And she very easily catches the eye of a newspaper reporter who falls head over heels in love with her almost instantaneously. As for that nasty Madame Cosper, she does give Marta roles that allow her to stand out from the rest of the corps, even if they are not the roles Marta wants, but honestly, getting Mother Ginger during your first season with a ballet company is pretty outstanding! In short, Marta has a really good life.

In 1957.

photo credit Jeff Medaugh

photo credit Jeff Medaugh, Creative Commons license

Certainly there are events that provide minor tension in this story which would be solved today by cell phones and voice mail. Modern readers might chuckle a time or two and perhaps they will wish Marta didn’t always get what she desired in the easiest way possible.

But that’s missing the meat of the story: Marta is just like every other dancer who has lived since 1957. She has weight issues and worries about injuries. She sees one of her very best friends struggle with anorexia but doesn’t see how that could happen to her. She is a typical teen who can’t see the big picture, who feels like every small hill of a problem is an insurmountable mountain.

While most dance students won’t relate to the ease in which Marta finds herself in a ballet company, they will find a lot in her story to identify with, including what happens when your career is plagued by injury after injury. At the end of this first novel, Marta actually suffers a potentially career-ending setback which leads nicely into the second novel in the series, When The Music Stops.

Unlike other young adult novels, this book has very little in the way of sex or profanity or violence, so it’s suitable for younger readers, perhaps 11 and up. However, they might need to be reminded that it’s set a long time ago, before the internet and text messaging.

Paddy Eger author photoPaddy Eger‘s novels may be purchased on Amazon or through her website. Parents and teachers will find a wealth of information about reading guides for her books, her workshops and public speaking, and more.

Two Lives are “Off Balance” in Terez Mertes Rose’s New Book

Terez Mertes Rose writes with an urgency that keeps us reading long past our bedtimes.

Off Balance by Terez Mertes Rose
Finally, a novel about ballet for adults.

There are plenty of books for young people, children or teens, that include characters who are ballet dancers but they often deal with typical situations dancers encounter: competition, body image, friendships, leaving home for the first time. For young people, much of this is new material but for adults, especially dancers or former dancers, we know all this already. Been there, done that, read Gelsey’s memoir a hundred years ago.

“Off Balance” is neither soapy nor witchy; its characters are neither cliché nor cardboard. Told from two points of view, it moves along at a fast clip but gives us plenty of time to drink in the atmosphere.

Two dancers: one just entering her prime, the other forced out by an injury.

Alice is the older of the two dancers, a thirtysomething administrator with West Coast Ballet Theatre in San Francisco who left the company after a devastating injury. She returned to work for the company but refuses to attend any performances. One wonders why she would put herself in such a situation day after day but there is the masochist in every dancer, which is manifested both physically and emotionally.

Lana is just over twenty, a stunning talent from Kansas who joins the company as a soloist, jumping over several other dancers in the corps who thought the position was theirs. Naturally, they resent her. She is sweetly naive and forced to grow up quickly. A mama’s girl, she is dealing with her mother’s depression via long distance telephone and finds it hard to adapt to her surroundings.

Two lives reluctantly connected, intertwined, and interdependent.

The women are brought together by Gil, a charismatic ladies’ (and gentlemen’s) man who is petulant and manipulative and who wields his power over them in extraordinarily selfish ways. As Alice’s boss, he makes demands that other employees would find insulting yet Alice lets him get away with them, assuming this implies a friendship or at least a loyalty. As Lana’s first lover, he massages the truth about his live-in girlfriend and other lovers to keep her from leaving. Somehow he convinces Alice to take in poor Lana, who has no money and no friends. While Alice finds her talented, she also finds her innocence exhausting. She very reluctantly allows the girl into her home but keeps her distance emotionally, refusing to let her into her heart.

Running like the current of a fast-moving river underneath it all is the ballet.

    • There are the catty girls who are particularly destructive and mean-spirited but in ways that are truly painted in shades of gray rather than the black-and-white cruelty we see in teen characters. These women are the high school mean girls who grew up (barely) into adult bullies.


    • There is the wealthy donor who expects a certain amount of deference from Gil and Alice and who uses his money as a weapon. This is a scenario we rarely see in young adult literature, precisely because it is so politically wrought. But Terez Mertes Rose brings what might be dull and flat into three-dimensional glittery excess.


    • There is Alice’s best friend who connects smoothly and easily to Lana and Alice’s loving boyfriend who finds Lana adorable – both situations aggravate Alice and provoke her into making very bad decisions. But we understand why; she must protect herself.


It’s not hard to empathize with Alice who hides her emotions behind a cool intellect. And it’s easy to feel for Lana, a young woman who has had to deal with a mother who is not merely overbearing but insanely manipulative. We want both women to get what they want.

So many classic “dance” stories involve the aging dancer/young ingenue dynamic (see also, The Turning Point in movieland and Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead in novel form). It seems natural that dancers-turned-storytellers use this relationship often. They are usually the former and have been the latter. But when not handled well, bitterness and jealousy color the relationship and we find ourselves rooting for the older dancer to leave gracefully and for the younger woman to mature and allow her to do so.

The relationship between Alice and Lana is more nuanced, less bold-stroked, and we witness them growing side by side. I appreciate that there is no love triangle here, no competition between the two women for a role or a man. How unusual!

courtesy The Classical Girl

courtesy The Classical Girl

Terez Mertes Rose is a writer and former ballet dancer whose stories and essays have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Literary Mama, Espresso Fiction, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Anthology credits include Women Who Eat (Seal Press, November 2003), A Woman’s Europe (Travelers’ Tales, June 2004) and Italy, a Love Story (Seal Press, June 2005). She reviews ballet performances for Bachtrack.com and blogs at The Classical Girl (http://www.theclassicalgirl.com).


Don’t miss reading Terez’s guest contributions to Dance Advantage!

When in Paris, Take Class!

Zen and the Art of Ballet


From Trailer Park to Tango: When Cherie Magnus Danced on the Edge

“I will dance forever if possible. Dance has always been there for me throughout my life’s difficulties. It has sustained and saved me.” – Cherie Magnus

Cherie Magnus’ memoir, Arabesque: Dancing on the Edge in Los Angeles, begins with the author’s sixteenth birthday when her father gives her a 1957 Mercury Montclair convertible. It’s a great ride, shiny and black with a ragtop, but it’s also a gift of freedom. Her parents’ constant moving and their rocky personal relationship made the ground under Cherie’s feet as unstable as Los Angeles in an earthquake. Having wheels means she can get to her dance classes consistently, continue to attend the same high school, and eventually drive from the Valley to Westwood to attend UCLA.

Arabesque: A Memoir
Magnus previously wrote about her life as a tango dancer in her first memoir, The Church of Tango, but this is a prequel, covering her young adult years, mostly her life in college.  She always knew she wanted to dance, from the very first group classes she took in ballet, tap and acrobatics at small local studios. Her passion was for ballet, for the forms and lines and beauty of the idiom. It took her far away from her reality: a father who could be drunk, a mother who was unreliable, and grandparents who could be exceptionally generous but only when things were done on their terms.

College should have been Cherie’s escape. She wanted to attend Texas Christian University which was the only college in the country that had a dance degree in ballet but her parents were adamant that she attend UCLA, which was local, well-respected and affordable, but its dance degree was in modern, an idiom that challenged and bored Magnus. It was during her freshman year that she met Paul, a grad student in engineering who was handsome and smart. She fell head over heels in love.

The beginning of the new decade – 1960 – heralded some profound social changes but for a young woman, much remained the same. Women were not at all “liberated” and Magnus found herself caught in the middle. She wanted desperately to be independent but Paul assumed she would do as he wanted. He dictated how their love life progressed; he insisted she stop performing and pursue teaching instead. She wanted very much to please him, as women of her generation were expected to, but she’d spent years dancing and choreographing and training for a life of performance.

And this begins the “edge” of Cherie Magnus’ life: not only does the title of her memoir refer to her life in the Valley (which is geographically on LA’s “edge”) but also the time she spent hospitalized for depression. While the breakdown might have been triggered by a fellow student’s death, it had been building for a while. Her parents’ separation, Paul’s lack of commitment, a realization that she wasn’t pursuing her passion – all contributed to a profound feeling of despair and hopelessness. Magnus became incredibly lonely and worried constantly. Eventually she was hospitalized but like any dancer, she found her center again. Although ballet would not be her professional future, she would find her dance passion in tango.

After reading her memoir, there was so much more I wanted to know. Cherie Magnus very graciously agreed to an interview.

Star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame

Star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame

Leigh Purtill: In the opening chapters of your memoir, you describe the frequent moves your family made from rented house to rented house, town to town, but the one constant was dance. Can you expand a bit on how you were first exposed to dance?

Cherie Magnus: I remember clearly my first ballet class. It was in Pacific Palisades, a few blocks from where we were living at the time. I was three years old and I recall how enchanted I was with the French terms. It was an epiphany for me and I knew then I wanted ballet for the rest of my life.

LP: You note that before Balanchine women in ballet had real women’s bodies but he changed all that and you subsequently didn’t have the “typical” ballet dancer’s body. Did you have a healthy attitude toward food and your body growing up?

CM: I grew up in the 50s and the Balanchine Body concept hadn’t yet been written in stone. There was still some wiggle room. The photos of great ballerinas of the past in books and magazines showed “normally built” women, although very petite. I am tall, and pas de deux class was always fraught with anxiety—would there be a tall boy to dance with me? I was aware of my body type and while I would have liked to lose weight, I knew I could never be “delicate” looking. And that’s when I imagined a career in jazz and Broadway-style dance and as a choreographer.

“…the difficult choices we make as teenagers can send us on unexpected and surprising paths, but can still lead to happiness and fulfillment.” – Cherie Magnus

LP: I love that you started your own small dance school at the trailer park where you lived before college. Later you say you know you needed to dance first before you could settle into a career as a choreographer. Did your college boyfriend Paul and his mother (who wanted you to teach) eventually influence you?

CM: The Royale School of Ballet in the trailer park was a wonderful experience for me. But as always during my childhood, my parents were irresponsible and flaky and we soon moved to another town in the Valley so that was that. But I never wanted to be “just a teacher,” even of ballet. Besides I was under the impression that you had to make a name for yourself first as a dancer before anyone would hire you to teach or choreograph. Teaching ballet was what professional dancers did when they retired from performing.

LP: And speaking of Paul, you say he wanted you to give up dance yet that was an essential part of who you were. Do you think you grew stronger out of that relationship? Did it give you the courage to do what you really wanted?

Cherie dressed to dance the Charleston in high school

Cherie dressed to dance the Charleston in high school

CM: It’s hard to know looking back what I really wanted. It was a very confusing time. I do know that I would have given up everything, all my dreams, anything to marry Paul. That was the culture then. A girl’s goal in life was to find love and marriage, have children, and make a happy home. If she could also have a career, good on her—as long as her husband was happy. I don’t regret the relationship, even though it was tragic. And perhaps it did make me stronger, as all the clichés assure us difficult times will. But because it ended badly, I really needed my family or some place of emotional support, and I had none. Not my parents or my grandparents, not my best friend Carla, the girl I considered my sister, and certainly not my boyfriend. I think my life would have been different if at that moment I hadn’t felt totally alone and tossed to the winds.

The thing was, by the time Paul demanded I quit dance, I was already hooked on UCLA and a good university education. At that point I couldn’t have thrown that away to run to New York to dance. Getting my degree became my focus and my source of stability.

LP: You candidly discuss being hospitalized for depression as well as your desire to be a liberated woman yet feeling restrained by the “rules” women were meant to follow for their love lives and careers. Do you think the two were related?

CM: I think I was caught in a wrinkle in history, just when awareness was rising and changes were about to happen. It was a crucial time as a woman to be making important life decisions. Ten years later I would have been more confident at age eighteen, but in 1961 the future of women in our society wasn’t clear, just confusing. I felt caught in between the norms for women of the 50s and the women of the 60s that were diametrically opposed. But still, life-changing decisions had to be made. So along with the chaos in my own life, it was just too much. Those teenage years often include depression anyway, but most kids weather the storm—as I did in time.

LP: At the end of the memoir, you hint at what is to come in your life: tango. Without spoiling anything for readers who might want to check out your earlier memoir, The Church of Tango, can you briefly mention the shift from ballet to tango? Were you eager to step away from the rigors of ballet?

CM: I was never eager to leave ballet. I loved the rigors! It was the opposite of chaos and took me away from my problems, all but the fear that my physical makeup would preclude a ballet career….But I didn’t find the tango until many years later. When my husband died, the only thing that saved me at first was dancing every night at a country and western club in Santa Monica. Every night for a year…and then I found the tango and made my first trip to Buenos Aires and my life took on a new direction. I taught tango with my Argentine partner for nine years in Buenos Aires. I wrote about it in The Church of Tango—how dance was my salvation, carrying me through tragedy, loss, cancer, pain.

(All photos courtesy Cherie Magnus.)

Cherie Magnus

Cherie Magnus

Cherie Magnus writes and teaches tango in Buenos Aires. She was formerly a dance research librarian in Los Angeles and a dance critic for local newspapers. A finalist in the Buenos Aires Tango Campeonata 2006, she has appeared in two video documentaries with her Argentine partner, Ruben Aybar. For more information about Cherie or to order her books, go to MirasolPress.

“The Walls Around Us” Keeps Readers On Their Toes

Available on Amazon

“‘Ori’s dead because of what happened out behind the theater, in the tunnel made out of trees. She’s dead because she got sent to that place upstate, locked up with those monsters. And she got sent there because of me.’

The Walls Around Us is a ghostly story of suspense told in two voices—one still living and one long dead. On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement. On the inside, within the walls of a girls’ juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom. Tying these two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries.

We hear Amber’s story and Violet’s, and through them Orianna’s, first from one angle, then from another, until gradually we begin to get the whole picture—which is not necessarily the one that either Amber or Violet wants us to see.

Nova Ren Suma tells a supernatural tale of guilt and innocence, and what happens when one is mistaken for the other.”

(From the Goodreads description of “The Walls Around Us” by Nova Ren Suma)


It is a rare author who can write authentically about ballet and prison. Fortunately, the only one of the two that Nova Ren Suma has personally experienced is ballet. According to the notes in my copy of the book, she studied ballet as a teenager so she knows that world quite well. The juvenile detention center, although not an environment she knew intimately, is portrayed equally beautifully.

One of the strengths of this wild and intense thriller is the lyrical prose. Suma may be writing in the English language like many of us do but she uses words like an artist wields paints. Her palette is far more colorful and expansive than many writers’. And it is this way of drawing her story that pulls us in and never lets us go.


“There’s this thumping, and it’s not my pristine pair of pointe shoe shoes touching floor for the first night in their short lives. It’s what’s going on in my head. It’s a stampede.” (Violet)


The two points of view are Amber, a girl in Aurora Hills Detention Center because she murdered her abusive stepfather, and Violet, a self-centered ballerina who is about to graduate from high school and attend Julliard. Connecting them is Orianna, a girl who was/is falsely imprisoned for the murder of two dancers in “the tunnel” outside the theater where she and Violet perform.

“Was/is” is an important distinction because the two narratives are separated by time. How exactly this works (there is an element of magical realism in the initial contact between Amber and Violet) is left until the very end when both points of view come together. Kind of. There is also a lot of “kind of” and events that are up to individual interpretation. I don’t want to spoil the ending and how it all evolves but rest assured your interpretation of the resolution may not be the same as mine – and that’s okay. Suma leaves it to us to figure out.


“…how did this intruder know who Ori was? And how did I, if Ori hadn’t come up our hill and stepped off the blue-painted bus to join us yet?” (Amber)


Both girls have secrets, both girls know the truth, but we are never certain who is telling the truth and who is lying and when. That unreliable narration and contradiction between accounts always keeps the reader on her toes. From the beginning with Amber’s account, we know there was an attempted escape at the prison. From Violet’s opening account, we know that Ori is gone, in prison for murder and that the reason is Violet’s fault.


“Sometimes I think I still have the blood on my face.” (Violet)


From there the stories diverge and intertwine and we learn more (we think) about the girls.

I welcomed the complex characterizations of not only Violet, Ori and Amber but also the secondary characters. Suma gives us teenagers who are not black-and-white, good-or-bad, mean girls or Mary Sues. In other words, realistic teens in hyperrealistic situations. Most girls are not going to be in prison, most are not classical ballerinas – but all of them get jealous and defensive and protective and heartbroken.

photo by Erik Ryerson

photo by Erik Ryerson

Nova Ren Suma is the author of several young adult novels, including “Imaginary Girls” and “17 & Gone” as well as the middle grade novel, “Dani Noir.” She attended Antioch College and Columbia University and lives in New York City. She can be reached through her website, novaren.com. Her latest novel, “The Walls Around Us,” can be purchased at bookstores or from Amazon.