Various Positions by Martha Schabas
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Please note that this review may contain light spoilers. However, it does not contain anything I believe would truly diminish the experience of reading the book.
I picked this young adult title up hoping for some light weekend reading about a dance academy. Instead, I found a heavy book about dance, yes, but also about sexual awakening, the breakdown and dysfunction of family units, lying (or at least truth that is evasive and unclear), and the ugliness of mental illness. I'm not sure, based on other reviews, that Schabas intended the last- and it's quite obvious that if she did, most readers did not get it- but for me mental illness and its consequences dominated the book.
This book is about Georgia, a 14-year old with what could best be described as a miserable and checkered home life. She auditions for, and receives, admission to one of Canada's most prestigious ballet academies, conveniently located within easy driving distance to her home. As the book continues, Georgia, who is prudish and disgusted by sex at the beginning of the novel, develops an attraction to, and ultimately an unhealthy obsession with, her ballet teacher, Roderick.
I have to disagree with the somewhat disingenuous reviewers who claim that this book is not at all about dance and is all about sex, claiming to have been scandalized and shocked, shocked at the volume and explicit nature of the sex in the book. In reality Georgia only has sex once in the book, toward the very end, and the scene is neither explicit nor vulgar. It is true that a large portion of the book focuses on her sexual awakening and the development of a sexual awareness on her part. While I don't know that I'd let my nonexistent 12 or 14 year old daughter read this book, I didn't find these kinds of feelings or emotions coming from a 14 year old character surprising, and was not put off by them (though I will admit, I could have done without Schabas's descriptions of internet porn involving people running purple popcicles down their 'boobs' (her word) and the like.)
I will admit that the book was less about dancing than I expected, though I'd say that dancing gets a fair number of pages, and that Schabas doesn't flinch away from dealing with some of the real problems in the dance community, from the pressure and the cliquish nature of the dancers to eating disorders. To me, though, the focus was not sex either. It was, as stated above, the perils of undiagnosed mental illness and how they will destroy peoples families and lives. We quickly realize that Georgia's mother has major mental problems, including, at a minimum, major depression so bad that she can't get out of bed to take Georgia to the most important ballet audition of her life and Georgia has to call her sister to do it. She also possibly suffers from delusions including the delusion that Georgia's father is unfaithful. Her dad, in the meantime, literally does not talk to anyone and is almost psychopathic in his desire to cut everyone down.
It comes as no surprise, then, when Georgia begins to suffer from delusions of her own halfway through the book- these centered around Rodrick, her much older dance teacher, and the fact that he wants to have a sexual relationship with her. They can only be called delusions because, other than touching her thigh a few times while giving her legitimate dance corrections and driving her home once after a very late rehearsal he literally gives her no encouragement. None. In the meantime she becomes increasingly obsessed with him. None of this was to a degree that was normal. I was left with the firm conviction that she was mentally ill. She'd have thoughts such as this to justify the fact that he acted like he had no feelings for her:
"Roderick knew it was dangerous to put moves on me. He wasn't in my head like I was, had no proof how I would react."
In the end, after he rejects her as we all know he will, it blows up in her face as everyone believes due to her representations and actions that he actually put the moves on her, perhaps even raping her. This could have gone in an interesting direction. Instead, Schabas seemed not to know what to do now that something really interesting and consequential had happened and gave the whole thing up.
And that brings me to what, for me, was the real problem with the book (other than the fact that I'm not positive Schabas even intended the mental illness angle): the ending. First, Schabas seems to want us to believe that Georgia's mother is not mentally ill, but that her reactions were normal given what she was going through. I am sorry, but her actions were not normal no matter what she was going through. Mentally healthy people can get out of bed and can be decent mothers to their children. She also seems to want us to accept that Georgia has just neatly moved on with her life and that her obsessions and delusions were normal too. I was 14 once. So were all my friends. We had crushes on teachers. None of us came to believe that they wanted to have sex with us or got to the point of true obsession and ruining their life. This is not normal either. Georgia needed help beyond just moving to a new city, which Schabas seems to think would just solve all of her and her mom's problems. Only therapy and possibly medication could possibly do that. Finally, after all the focus on Georgia's sexual maturation, her loss of virginity takes less than a page and is promptly totally forgotten and never mentioned again. That was unacceptable to me. All of this prevented me from giving the book the 4 stars I was inclined to and made me think seriously of bumping it to two stars. All books need some closure and logic, and Schabas did not do that.
A final word about the author and her writing, especially as this is her first work. I picked this book up on a whim mostly based on it's cover. I'd never heard of the book or Schabas, but the picture was pretty (yes, I know, so shallow) and reminded me of the fact that I used to dance myself and still love a good ballet. Despite rating the book only 3 of 5 stars, Schabas is a talented writer and I hope she will write more. Her writing style is clear, smooth, and concise, and I think she could do great things with a more polished ending and a clearer focus on what she is trying to convey. I will definitely give whatever she reads next a try.