If by ‘short’ you mean ‘long’

8 Jun

Because I let dance permeate everything in my life, it should come as no surprise that I’ve become interested in reading novels that have dance in them.  The first dance novel review I shall do will be on Jane Hamilton’s The Short History of a Prince.  I have to preface by saying my tastes in literature greatly reflect my tastes in dance too (funny how that works…or is it?).  I like books that are charming and easy to read, the literary equivalent of say, Symphonic Variations.  I also like action driven, thriller types like a Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux.  On rare occasions my carefree heart is moved by a fantastic drama (Manon) and my inability to appreciate Shakespeare as much as I should applies to both books and ballet.  Thus, The Short History of a Prince was a difficult read for me.  It’s realistic fiction with virtually no plot and while I can appreciate a plotless dance, no dance performance takes the same amount of time it requires to read a three hundred and fifty page book.  It is at times like these I remember how obsolete my squirrely attention span can be.

Nevertheless, I was determined to get through it.  Hamilton tells the story of Walter McCloud, ping-ponging back and forth between a younger version of him and the adult Walter.  This gets awfully confusing and I’ve read in books on novel writing that flashbacks are generally a no-no because surprise, they can confuse the reader.  Also, the chapters are so long it’s easy to forget where on Walter’s timeline you are.  I think the book has a total of twelve chapters which is a lot to spread out in three hundred and fifty pages and it wasn’t until the last fifty or so pages that reading the book felt less like a chore.

I wanted to enjoy the book, I really did—there were moments in Walter’s life that I could relate to in ways I have never felt for a fictional character before.  However, my efforts to understand Walter were constantly hampered by his cantankerous outlook on life.  He’s a rather unpleasant person and I’ve always felt that the cornerstone of a good character is the growth they show in a story.  Walter shows hardly any and at best goes from arse to less of an arse.  It’s not that I expect a protagonist to be a shiny hero; there were several times I wanted to kick Harry Potter in the shins for being an incorrigible youth and making the same mistakes over and over again.  However, J.K. Rowling makes us feel a complete spectrum of emotions for her prince while Hamilton’s Walter is stuck in a rut.  In a way, this does make Walter more real than you’d expect…until he opens his mouth.  The majority of his dialogue is not like anything you’d hear from a person and it’s not because of the decade—it’s because it’s inane and supersaturated with philosophical monologues.  The way he talks and even supporting (and in most cases underdeveloped) characters talks makes them impossible to visualize.

The major pro of the book I thought was how Walter was this boy growing up in the Midwest, aspiring to be a dancer and doesn’t make it.  He’s not gifted like his two best friends Susan and Mitch which strains their relationships.  Jealousy is further exacerbated by his feelings for Mitch and even spite for Susan as she develops a relationship with Walter’s terminally ill brother, Daniel (a hatred that I couldn’t wrap my head around).  Regardless, the one silver lining in Walter’s experience with dance is realized when he gets a part in a shoddy, juvenile production of The Nutcracker which is probably the one moment of jubilation in the entire book.  On one hand, he’s sort of embarrassed by it but on the other, the excitement of being on stage cannot be denied.  I think it’s safe to say that most people have formative experiences from their youths that are embarrassing but underneath layers of humiliation a small token of pride can also be found.

Now Jane Hamilton herself must have quite the passion for Balanchine, as Walter’s biggest artistic influence is Serenade.  Like it is for many, Serenade is a dance for angels in Walter’s mind.  Other shout outs for Balanchine works include Diamonds, with Susan mentioning how she was coached by Suzanne Farrell herself for that role (Susan ends up at Miami City Ballet, under Edward Villella’s tutelage, because “there is more Balanchine being done in Miami than New York” or something like that.  Ouch…I wonder if that’s based on some real drama that was going on at the time?).  Swan Lake is of course mentioned several times throughout, and there’s a funny scene where Walter does some of the choreography from it, trying to explain its intricacies to his five year old niece.  It’s because of his aunt, Sue Rawson that Walter even falls in love with ballet (she’s the one that takes him to see the above ballets, discussing them as well as classical music and opera).  I kept thinking about how I would have loved to have a Sue Rawson in my life, to nurture my love for the classical arts by helping me to understand their purpose.  My parents of course got me into music, but obviously nothing else and I was never really told why classical music was even important.  However, I ended up being horribly wrong about Sue Rawson because she makes the most heinous comment in the entire book…she calls Frederick Ashton “an amateur.”  I literally choked on my own tongue at that moment…if she was real, the sleeves would have been rolled up, the boxing gloves donned and it would have been SO on.  Nobody says that about Freddy A…NOBODY.

Overall…I’d have to say that The Short History of a Prince wasn’t my cup of tea…it gets bogged down by odd dialogue, the lack of a plot, a mean main character, anti-chronological messes and way too much description of the quaint, rural life.  However, there was something really beautiful in the way the book comes full circle in the end and I eventually did come to understand (but not sympathize with) Walter.  His mundane life and imperfections are the functions of the book.  It’s uncomfortable, it’s long and it goes nowhere and as much as we hate to admit it, for many people this IS indeed life…but even if it’s faulty I will always prefer optimism, hence my love of Billy Elliot. The world needs more Billys.  Although given the growing and fearful trend of parents giving their children ridiculous, nutty names it’s quite possible the world needs both Billys and Walters after all.

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