Lockdown and my own research into the life of a pesky character in my head, rekindled my love of ballet which I was fascinated by as a child. While I never danced apart from my bedroom (two left feet) I’d watch The Red Shoes, Brigadoon and recorded videos of Wayne Sleep on repeat. When an invite to review Clara and Olivia by Lucy Ashe arrived in my email, how could I resist? It promised to thrill and throw me into the world of ballet, did it succeed?
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Book Review: Clara and Olivia by Lucy Ashe
Title: Clara and Olivia
Author: Lucy Ashe
Publisher: Magpie books
Genre: Suspense, Historical Fiction
Release date: 2nd February 2023
Perfect twins. Perfect victims.
Black Swan meets The Red Shoes in this perfectly-poised psychological thriller.
SADLER’S WELLS, London, 1933.
I would kill to dance like her.
Sisters Olivia and Clara rehearse with Ninette de Valois at the recently opened Sadler’s Wells.
Disciplined and dedicated, Olivia is the perfect ballerina. But no matter how hard she works,
she can never match up to identical twin Clara’s charm.
I would kill to be with her.
As rehearsals intensify for the ballet Coppélia, the girls feel increasingly as if they are being
watched. And as infatuation threatens to become obsession, the fragile perfection of their
lives starts to unravel.
An exquisite goose-bumping debut from a former ballerina.
Wow! Before I began this novel I was wary because of the Black Swan mentioned in the tagline – I adored the dance sequences but struggled with elements of the plot but my fears were unfounded. It is much more than that film and encapsulates more of the obsession and glamour of the much adored The Red Shoes.
The first unnerving scene hooked me in and set up the suspense that would run through the novel building up at the plot was revealed. Without the knowledge of what was to come, the first few chapters could easily have lulled me into the idea this would be a tale of two sisters, identical to look at but different in personality and drive finding their way in a world where the corps de ballet demand everyone to be the same yet they long to find their own individual paths. (This still would have made a strong book) Knowing danger was lurking, made me suspicious of everyone from the off, adding to the thrill of the read.
Told in multiple POVs, the characters of Clara and Olivia, Samuel and Nathan are introduced. Each have depth, their own backstory and voice. The twins’ complex relationship entwined in their loyalty to each other, and love of the dance was a fascinating read as they begin long to be seen in their own right.
With a complicated childhood, it brought home the attitudes of the day, and added to the depth of character.
There is a strong sense of place and time making this story immersive, adding to the tension and connection to the twins. It was the small details that made this book exquisite, thanks to intensive research and insider
knowledge. Who knew there was an actual well, inside the theatre and the consequential superstitions surrounding it. The studios, and dressing rooms and Freed’s shop came alive on the page with the sounds, smells and touch described. I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction books on the history of ballet, and it was an
added joy to see names and places set in context with an added layer of realism. The rabbit warren of rooms in the theatre and foggy nights in the streets of London, were perfect locations for tension and sinister goings on.
It was Samuel, the ballet shoemaker who captured my imagination. Again, he was complex, and through his eyes I was unable to grasp his true self, so I never knew whether to feel guilty for liking his scenes or not. Like the theatre, the descriptions of the inner workings of the workshop and shop, were immersive. I longed to know more of this world and could easily imagine another book based in the shop with the comings and goings of the customers and gossip between staff.
The tension builds up when obsessions revealed, and danger comes out of the shadows. With highly visual cinematic scenes, complex personalities, and dangerous obsession blended in the immersive world of ballet, this book was a hit for me and left me with a book hangover. A physical copy is needed for my forever shelf.
It’s ideal for those who love The Red Shoes, ballet, suspense and books like Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.
LUCY ASHE trained at the Royal Ballet School for eight years, first as a Junior Associate and then at White Lodge. She has a diploma in dance teaching with the British Ballet Organisation. She decided to go to university to read English Literature at St Hugh’s College, Oxford (MA Oxon), while continuing to dance and perform. She then took a PGCE teaching qualification and became a teacher. She currently teaches English at Harrow School, an all-boys boarding school in North London. Her poetry and short stories have been published in a number of literary journals and she was shortlisted for the 2020 Impress Prize for New Writers. She also reviews theatre, in particular ballet, writing for the website Playstosee.com.
‘I have a great love of ballet and am fascinated by its history. I was lucky enough to meet many of the great dancers of the Royal Ballet, even Dame Ninette de Valois when she came to White Lodge to celebrate her 100th birthday. I have performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and learnt the repertoire for many of the classical ballets.
My novel is closely researched, re-creating the early years of the Vic-Wells company at Sadler’s Wells, and the story is immersed in ballet history featuring characters such as Ninette de Valois, Lydia Lopokova, Constant Lambert, Alicia Markova and Nicholas Sergeyev. Frederick and Dora Freed and their pointe shoe workshop play a key role, as does the history of Sadler’s Wells theatre itself. In a book shop on Cecil Court, I found beautifully preserved theatre programmes from the 1932-33 season at Sadler’s Wells and it was magical to imagine my characters holding those pages.
One major inspiration for me was my twin sister. We spent the first part of our lives doing everything together: first day of school, first ballet class, first piano lesson. We were a unit, referred to simply as the twins, and we had a very special connection. That connection remains even though our lives are so entirely different now. And so, in my novel, I have been inspired by the connectedness and the bond of twins, Olivia and Clara staying so close despite their lives starting to take them in different directions.