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Contemporary Novels

THE TURNOUT by Megan Abbott

Did Megan Abbott set out to ask why any woman would ever vote for Donald Trump? Maybe not, but it’s certainly one of the many ways to read this powerful, addictive, deeply disturbing book.

THE TURNOUT is her third novel set in the world of teenage female athletes, after DARE ME (cheerleaders) and YOU WILL KNOW MY NAME (gymnasts), and it’s as different from the two earlier books as they are from each other.

Abbott’s viewpoint character is Dara Durant, who owns a ballet studio with her husband Charlie and her one-year-younger sister Marie–all three of them former dancers. Fragile, traumatized Marie has slowly been coming apart for months. When a fire badly damages the school, Marie’s behavior becomes even more erratic and self-destructive. Her timing couldn’t be worse, as they have just started rehearsals for THE NUTCRACKER, the annual make-it-or-break-it event for the struggling business.

Tension escalates when they bring in a highly recommended contractor to make the repairs. Derek is physically huge and intimidating, boorish, narcissistic, crudely sexual, and an unapologetic misogynist. He’s also a lousy contractor.

This is not the book you buy for your 6-year-old niece who just landed her first stage role as a Snowflake. Aside from the graphic sex, violence, and language, Abbott is determined to rip away every last shred of romance about the dancer’s life. Charlie, who had the most promise of the three of them, is now in constant pain and taking huge doses of muscle relaxants. Dara’s bones creak and pop when she gets out of bed in the morning.

But Abbott saves her most gruesome descriptions for the dancer’s feet–or “hooves” as she calls them at one point: “Blood blisters, soles like red onions, feet that peeled fully tip to toe every month or so, calluses thick as canvas, toes curled sideways, necrotic, ulcerated toes, their nails dropping off, clattering to the floor.”

The teenage dancers starve themselves and hate the sight of themselves in the mirror. They cut each other with words and occasionally with razor blades. They will stop at nothing to advance their careers–which have barely begun and yet are nearly over.

THE TURNOUT is much more than a locker-room exposé, more than a study of toxic masculinity. It deals with the long, often multi-generational fallout of dysfunctional families; it illuminates sexual power games; and, every once in a while, it shows the transcendent joy of dancing and surrendering yourself to music.

However, this is a Megan Abbott novel, which means it is also relentlessly suspenseful. There are family secrets (of course) and plot twists, a few of which I saw coming and most of which opened trap doors under my feet. Kudus to Abbott for taking the my-parents-died-in-a-car-wreck-when-I-was-a-kid chestnut–so often a lazy writer’s way of avoiding complex relationships–and making it integral to the story.

As to despots, Abbott’s message is clear–once you let them in, they can be nearly impossible to get rid of. As recent history has shown.

By Lewis Shiner

Lewis Shiner is the author of OUTSIDE THE GATES OF EDEN, the cyberpunk classic FRONTERA, and the award-winning GLIMPSES, among other novels. He's also published short story collections, journalism, and comics. Virtually all of his work is available for free download at fictionliberationfront.net. For more information, browse to lewisshiner.com.

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