For those who don’t know me, I’m a ballet dancer. This means I turn my most critical eye on ballet media-fictional or otherwise! This brings me to the culmination of many, many thoughts and opinions on Tiny Pretty Things, both a young-adult fiction duology written by Dhonielle Clayton and Sonya Charaipotra and a teen drama series of the same name adapted by Netflix. For the sake of your time and mine, we’ll only be discussing the novels for today, but I plan to dig into the TV series at a later time.
Also: a brief warning. This review will discuss text related topics (and SPOILERS) such as eating disorders, homophobia and outing, harassment and bullying, racism in various forms, underage sexual activity and nudity, grooming and pedophilia, and probably more. Heads up, the book is a bit more tame on some parts than the show, but take care of yourself while reading and watching!
TPT centers three protagonists: Giselle Stewart, Bette Abney and June Park. All three are Level 7 (read: vaguely advanced) students at the American Ballet Conservatory. The end goal of one’s education at the conservatory is a company contract to dance professionally. I believe each character starts out as 17 years of age, but birthdays and age are a bit dubious except when convenient.
- Giselle “Gigi” Stewart! The effervescent new girl, and token Black student at ABC. At the start of the first book she has just moved to New York City to pursue her dreams of professional ballet from California, and appears as an exotic breath of fresh air. She is also battling a heart defect that limits her commitment to ballet, one of her greatest frustrations.
- Bette Abney! The untouchable music box ballerina and also this decade’s ballet nepotism baby. It’s a bit unclear how or why her parents are so wealthy and connected to the ballet world, but it was enough to breed Bette as well as her older sister Adele (current company principal) for stardom. Bette also happens to have a Ken Doll cutout of a boyfriend (You’ll meet Alec later) and a rapidly spiraling Adderall addiction.
- June Park! Unfortunately on the part of the authors, not much can be said about June other than the fact that she is Korean-American and bulimic. She has been playing catchup to everyone else her entire life at the conservatory, never quite enough or favored as much as her peers. June’s mother is an ex-dancer who warns her against getting too deep into the ballet world and presents the looming ultimatum of a contract or college education for June.
I’ll also acquaint you with some side characters relevant to plot and character arcs; there’s quite a lineup, which I’ve narrowed down in order of most to least relevance to the core of the story.
- Cassie Lucas is the former ingenue from London who was poised to capture Bette’s queen bee spot in the year preceding the events of the first book. These plans were cut short by a tragic hip injury in which she was dropped during a fateful pas de deux. She is indisposed for the events of the first book, and healing off the page.
- Alec Lucas – Cassie’s cousin – is the Prince Charming of ABC! He dances well, is blonde, reports back to his father (major executive of the school and company) and dates Bette (and occasionally cheats on her). That’s about it.
- Sei-Jin is another Korean-American student at the conservatory, and June’s long time nemesis. She also doesn’t have much substance other than being a one dimensional bully and mean closeted girl, and much of her taunting occurs merely to antagonize June.
As you could probably gather by now, this is a book about ballet. The competitiveness of the students in such a high-tension environment drives the conflict and plot, while adults few and far between stand and watch. This leads to much backstabbing, lying, cheating and various other dastardly deeds you’d hardly expect teens to be capable of! The definition of contemporary fiction is often blurred with that of realistic fiction, but this book evenly fits both. It is set in modern day New York City in the closest recreation of a real world NYC elite ballet academy as possible.The same cannot be said for the show, but that’s a can of worms for another day. Charaipotra and Clayton both cite experience and proximity to the young dancers and training environments depicted in this book as inspiration, and use their ballet knowledge and YA know-how to craft a split narrative duology together. Equal perspectives are given to Gigi, Bette and June; Cassie opens each book with a flashback prologue, meant to loom over the protagonists as a slighted foe. The first book stands at 438 pages, and the second at 384. Advertising and promotions boasted comparisons to “Pretty Little Liars,” “Gossip Girl,” and the aforementioned cult classic “Black Swan”.
First, I’d like to propose that the primary issue with this duology is that it overpromises and underdelivers. Filled with dramatic (extremely flowery) prose and bouts of backstabbing beyond belief, these books dig themselves into a deeper hole with every shock value deficient twist. When characters lack the substance, drive and development to meet the stakes of the plot, both fizzle. Unfortunately for Chaipotra and Clayton, the meat of their characters and knowledge of teenage interaction is made of microaggressions and tropes held together with hairspray, which also negates any claims to positive or groundbreaking representation they may stake.
Let’s start with the arguably leading lady. Gigi arrives at ABC flawless and light, one of Mr. K’s newest “butterflies”. She is never mean, never snaps, never bites back more than she should (at least for the first book) and she is entirely unlikeable. Gigi has light skin, perfect curls with a loose pattern and a thin build, of course. Gigi’s race is only brought up to show her otherness, but its never used as a point of discrimination besides the minor altercation with a costume designer quickly forgotten. It’s constantly hammered in that she is a light, ethereal, fairylike, butterfly. She is never dark, and only mean after being brutalized by nonblack students. Her general insecurity and shyness falls away, and just as Gigi comes into her own as a star, she is literally thrown under a bus. Did I mention she also steals Alec away from Bette? You can’t make this stuff up.
The most underrated and underutilized character similarly struggles through Level 7. June’s eating disorder is worsened by competition and negative attention, as well as the bullying she receives from Sei-Jin and her self-described clique of Asian-American dancers who exclude her; The reason being: June can’t speak Korean. This unnecessary tension is worsened when paired with the backstory of Sei-Jin kissing June (once her best friend) and subsequently threatening to lie to the entire school about June initiating the kiss. Again, these offscreen, pre-existing conflicts only occur to ratchet up the level of drama between June and other Asian dancers, no other reason. The guise of competition or a classic best friend-sidekick situation could have applied, or further exploration of June’s home dynamic and culture could have taken the place of such wasted page space.
Are you beginning to recognize a cycle occurring here? Cultural dissonance and tokenization of race fuel empty bits of the books masked as escalation of events. Each climax knocks everyone at the conservatory down multiple pegs, leaving the characters to scramble around new dynamics and further psychological damage; the old dynamics aren’t even strong enough to cement themselves before they change anyway. The cliffhanger endings and big reveals erase much, if not all, of the suspense, in which we are made to believe that an established three players will be vying for a place in the spotlight. Instead, it just gets messy and embarrassing.
Now that I’ve finished ranting about character inconsistencies and unfulfilled opportunities, I’d like to dig into the structure and plot of these novels for a bit. Initially, I was intrigued by the alternating three narrator structure of this duology. Equal page time for the main characters, all the more insight to the whodunnit moments and competition, and internal monologues for otherwise flat characters all enticed me. By the end of the books this was certainly not the case, and the structure failed to bear the load of the content it was required to carry. As discussed previously, amounts of development and romance are not equally distributed.
If these books really wanted to stay true to a three act ballet structure, I would edit the structure as follows: Act One is told by Gigi, Act Two is told by Bette, and Act Three is told by June. By revealing the trials they go through in the first person and each respective ascent or descent to power, this structure would play to the strengths of introspection and evenly cover all bases. Or, as Clayton and Chaipotra seem to be set on doing, cutting out June altogether and proposing a rivalry between Gigi and Bette would do the trick, since they each respectively lead the plot and attention of each book. Either way, allusions to the cast and characters of a story ballet are lost here with meandering narration and spotty development.
For my final point about the books that will segue into my discussion of the series at a later date, I would like to discuss how harmful representation is just as reprehensible as none at all. The failures to flesh out characters of color, demonization and antagonization of gay characters and all around lack of effort is an insult to each people group this franchise claims to represent. The TV series alters so many elements of this effort that the original attempts are near unrecognizable, but similarly fails to truly support the token minorities in its midst. I don’t know what we expected anyway, it’s literally Netflix! As I said, my many thoughts on this TV series will be shared at a later date. Until then, be safe and be well!
By Leah Ollie, Freshman, Butler University
Instagram: @leahgraceollie on Instagram
*The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of True Star Media.