For Tanaquil Le Clercq, the fifth wife of George Balanchine, legendary Russian choregrapher who almost single-handedly shaped the direction of 20th century ballet, this fact became brutally clear all too early. Le Clerq, the prototype for a Balanchine ballerina, was struck down by polio at the age of twenty-seven in 1956.
O'Connor, a four-time novelist whose father suffered from the disease, imagines her way into the mind of the famously private Le Clercq from the moment she contracts polio through her much-publicized divorce from Balanchine, their tenuous reconciliation and on to his death in 1981.
O'Connor does a brilliant job of creating a strong voice for Le Clercq. Although we only see glimpses of her childhood and her courtship with Balanchine in flashbacks, the reader gets a strong sense of Le Clercq's life and how her experiences informed her subsequent choices. I was both disappointed and surprised to see O'Connor ignore Le Clercq's dancing days. It's a brave choice for an author - we meet Le Clercq after she has lost her greatest ability. The decision results in a unique perspective on Le Clercq - we know her only as a cripple and an estranged wife. We see her in her worst moments and only experience her best moments in flashback. This dilutes the brutal impact of polio but it also make Le Clercq more flawed and human.
Muse isn't limited by Le Clercq's perspective. A cast of well-drawn secondary characters make the era of 1950 and 60s dance come alive while their joys and sorrows serve as a background chorus to the story of Le Clercq's life, enhancing her emotions. O'Connor recreates the legendary Balanchine through gesture and detail. The great man remains mysterious in many ways and as inaccessible and baffling to the reader as he was to Le Clercq. But through the accumulation of small gestures and details - frantic, restless movements and a love of Tolstoy's War and Peace - he becomes a real person. At times, the novel is almost too focused on Balanchine to the discredit of Le Clercq who was a strong woman in her own write and built an admirable life of writing and teaching after contracting polio.
Muse remains curiously distant from the world of ballet, never fully explaining why dancers remain so dedicated to this demanding art but it does lay bare the heart of a great dancer and the husband who gave her such joy and pain.
The Master's Muse received some attention recently for fictionalizing the life of a public figure who died only a decade ago. For readers interested in the debate over fictionalizing a real person's life and the line when private becomes public, a lived life becomes history, check out the two sides of the argument here: