There’s a sultry, dreamlike quality to Megan Abbott’s more recent books, bringing to mind the gauzy images of, oh, Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides or Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Watching Abbott’s extended interview in the Criterion Channel’s Adventures in Moviegoing series (which I highly recommend to film buffs!), you can tell she’s been heavily influenced by those kinds of subtextually (and overtly) erotic celluloid dreamscapes—and that’s certainly true of her latest, The Turnout, a striking tale embedded inside the uniquely masochistic world of ballet.
The trend toward coming-of-age tales and budding sensuality is a more recent preoccupation for Abbott. Her early works tended toward straight-ahead femme-focused noir, novels like Die a Little, The Song Is You, and the Edgar-winning Queenpin. It was in her later works that she found that sticky/sweaty sweet spot—the cheerleader-focused Dare Me (itself adapted with barely contained post-pubescent eroticism for the screen), the gymnast-populated You Will Know Me, and her other books exploring that near-forbidden aura of teen-girl passion, The Fever and The End of Everything. In any case, Abbott has definitely carved out her own grrrl-power niche in crime fiction, or at least adjacent to it. (And you should read them all!)
In The Turnout, we’re introduced to Dara and Marie Durant, who together own a ballet school that’s on the brink of producing its annual Nutcracker program (and there could be no more appropriate background for this story, not only in terms of the heightened drama within any troupe preparing for and dancing in that particular production but also the emasculation inherent in that title!). Our narrator is Dara, the more straight-backed and prim of the sisters, and through her flashbacks we learn of the family tragedies that have plagued both her personal relationships and the Durant School of Dance itself. Foremost among those tragedies is the death of Dara and Marie’s parents in a car accident, which left the school in the girls’ hands. There’s also Dara’s husband, Charlie, a famed Nutcracker alum at the school but now a shell of a man following years of back-breaking ballet. Charlie grew up intimately entwined with all the Durant women but is now most closely aligned with Dara—leaving Marie out in the cold, and quite literally out of the house. Following further tragedy in the form of a school fire, a burly contractor named Derek is brought in to repair the damage—but his increasingly overbearing presence wreaks havoc inside an already combustible atmosphere, lighting an altogether new kind of fire in Marie’s spandex-wrapped loins.
The slow-burn drama that simmers from that setup is delicious in that it’s multifaceted—from the hot-blooded dynamic that grows between the disciplined ice queen Dara and the warmer bohemian Marie, to our dawning understanding about the darkly quirky Durant family as a whole, to the burgeoning and gaspy heat that erupts between Derek and Marie, to the ever-present teeth-grinding agony of ballet. To that last point, we’re privy to the torture of envy-choked Nutcracker auditions and toe-grinding shoe fittings and competitive rage-pranks and relentless rehearsals and pain pain pain, all of it mirrored by Dara’s boiling anguish as Marie turns into a twisted, thirsting nightmare version of her former self and Derek tightens his fist around her beloved school (and sister).
The Turnout feels like it’s on the precipice of something forbidden, not unlike a dark fairy tale, with its fiery nightscapes and frank, wet bursts of sexuality. The Durant School of Dance—the details of which Abbott portrays with horrific but almost loving precision—is filled with teens, and the adjacency of that community with Dana and Marie’s squirmy back story suggests that the young dancers currently enduring Nutcracker rehearsals are destined for their own inevitably dark and icky paths through life, that everything is circular in the world of ballet and pain is everywhere and always. In that sense, The Turnout feels more like a horror story than a crime story, and indeed its final act is full of nightmarish scenes.
If I had one small criticism, it’s that a murder early in the third act changes the dynamic of The Turnout from its highly effective “sultry, simmering dance school horror tale” to a more by-the-numbers “mystery wrap-up and reveal.” Perhaps it’s only on the personal level that that narrative turn isn’t quite as satisfying as what came before, but overall The Turnout remains a terrifically engaging dark fairy tale with intriguing characters and a wonderful nightmarish descent toward revelation. Personally, it struck me as more resonant than her previous effort, the science-lab-focused Give Me Your Hand. The Turnout is a vivid return to the type of story that Abbott does best.