Title: Bright Burning Stars
Author: A.K. Small
Publication Date: April 24, 2019
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
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Content Warnings: body dysmorphia, severe disordered eating, depression, suicidal thoughts, self-harm, drug use, grief
Two best friends find themselves in opposite sides of a competition in this compelling debut set in the dazzling world of ballet.
Best friends Marine Duval and Kate Sanders have trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School since childhood, where they’ve formed an inseparable bond forged by respective family tragedies and a fierce love for dance. When the body of a student is found in the dorms just before the start of their final year, Marine and Kate begin to ask themselves what they would do to win the ultimate prize: to be the one girl selected to join the Opera’s prestigious corps de ballet. Would they die? Cheat? Seduce the most talented boy in the school, dubbed the Demigod, hoping his magic would make them shine, too? Neither girl is sure.
But then Kate gets closer to the Demigod, even as Marine has begun to capture his heart. and as selection day draws near, the competition – for the prize, for the Demigod – becomes fiercer, and Marine and Kate realize they have everything to lose, including each other.
I remember reading the blurb of this book and thinking how interesting it was. A dead body, two best friends in a very cutthroat ballet school, a love triangle – it was like sweet nectar to a honeybee and I fell for it.
Bright Burning Stars was a letdown.
I desperately wanted to love this book, but there were just too many things in it that left a bitter taste in my mouth. Everything from the characters to the story’s pacing down to the way certain arcs were handled and resolved felt off to me. So much so that even if there were still parts of the story that I liked, I just couldn’t shake off the funny (and infuriating) feeling this book left me with.
If I were to only look at this book as solely a ballet story, Bright Burning Stars would have been a good one. Having been a former dance herself, A.K. Small was able to bring to life the drama and the competitiveness of life at a topnotch ballet school. All the best parts – parts that I loved – were contained in these short, sporadic scenes. Small’s exacting descriptions of every step and movement the dancers, especially Kate, Marine and Cyrille, made created a vivid picture in my head.
It was all downhill from there.
This was supposed to be a quick read – just 304 pages. I could have finished reading it in one sitting, yet it took me 13 days to get through the whole thing, and I put part of the blame on the wonky writing.
The pacing, for me, lacked the rhythm this story called for – it slowed in the parts that needed speeding up and careened in the parts that needed more fleshing out. It totally doesn’t help that the characters – both main and secondary – were all shallowly drawn, caricatures made of shadows instead of solid lines. I couldn’t help but think just how big of a misstep this was both for the author and the story. Small, at the best moments of this book, showed great talent. She writes with a certain clarity and sharpness, and with a plot this interesting, she could have done a great deal more.
While the conclusion was satisfying enough, I just couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling this book gave me especially with the way it handled some things. I get that this was a story about toxic friendship, and that it dealt with dark, heavy topics, but it could have been handled better. Instead, all of it felt like mere plot points and not integral parts of the characters’ stories.
Overall, Bright Burning Stars could have a been a better story. Some might find something here for themselves, but for me, this just didn’t work.
A.K. SMALL was born in Paris, France. At first years old, she began studying classical dance with the legendary Max Bozzoni, then later with Daniel Franck and Monique Arabian at the famous Académie Chaptal. At thirteen, she moved to the United States, where she danced with the Pacific Northwest Ballet for one summer and with the Richmond Ballet Student Company for several years. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary and has an MFA in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When she’s not writing, she spends time with her husband, her puppy, and her three daughters, and practices yoga. Bright Burning Stars is her first novel.