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on June 29, 2010
Wow! I'm so suprised by all of the good reviews for this book. I wonder if any of them stopped to remember that the women who danced for the Paris Opera were real. In my opinion, turning them into prostitutes and the Ballet Master (also a real person) into their pimp is an insult to the memory of some great artists who worked extremely hard for their craft.

In truth, ballet dancers were, for their time, some of the most independent women around. As a female, it upsets me that some of the best women artists have been degraded in this way. This is the Golden Age of Ballet!!! Certainly there was real to life stories that the author could have used to create a compeling story and romance.

Did some dancers become mistresses to very rich men? Yes, they did. But it was a fringe benefit, not the reason for their hard work and sacrifice. Heck, the current first lady of France was once the mistress of the french president. France has a very long history of mistresses and rich powerful men.

Paris Opera ballerinas were never ever forced into prostitution in order to stay in the ballet. It is so sick to create such a story line.

And I'm not even going to mention the distraction of her misuse of dance terminology and form. If you ever danced at a serious level, you will have a really good laugh.

The genre is historical fiction, not fiction historical. I would have given it no stars if amazon would have let me.
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on August 7, 2010
I'm a fan -- a forgiving fan -- of historical fiction. I love Degas, Paris and ballet, and I'm all about the guilty pleasures of a romance novel. I figured this book couldn't disappoint. Did Paris Opera dancers really live this kind of life? I'm willing to accept the premise -- it's an intriguing idea and what should be a fool-proof setting for a good novel.

Unfortunately, this story is too ambitious for its narrator. We are stuck in the head of the soul-suckingly boring Alexandrie, a self-righteous show-off who sounds like a college student writing pretentious blog comments. Alexandrie's voice -- the multi-syllable words, the cliches, the affect -- rings false for a dancer raised as an illiterate (later tutored) farm girl. Alexandrie is principled about ballet as creating "art" (Where did this come from and why am I supposed to care?) She has secret romantic dreams of marriage -- but contempt for the idea of being a mistress (or worse). In the world of this book, it's not clear why these things are important to her, which makes it difficult to care about her story.

This book does have a promising premise and good structure. It just needs some likeable characters, a realistic historical voice, and that rich detail that h-fiction buffs lust for (what kind of coins do they spend? What kind of fabric do they wear? We want more than we can get on Wikipedia). And any 12-year-old knows that ballet is about drills, schedules, repetition and routine -- I wish we had more of a sense of the daily life in the Paris Opera ballet.

If you haven't read Memoirs of a Geisha, Noel Streatfield's Ballet Shoes, Girl with a Pearl Earring, or Mansfield Park, go dig your teeth into those. We'll have to keep waiting for the great novel on Degas.
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on August 31, 2010
Simplistic to say the least. Not only is the entire book not factual, the style of writing was so simplistic and dull to read I would not have bothered to finish it had I had anything else around to read. Her characters utter phrases like "thats so annyoing" in 19th century Paris? Please. It was written as if geared for tweens, but the subject matter would be highly inappropriate for that age. Don't waste your time on this book.
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on July 28, 2010
I got through one third of this book and decided it wasn't worth my time. It feels that the author has done no research on Degas, and has simply created a character called Alexandrie (a ballet dancer) to reflect his work. The story seems more to be about Alexandrie than Degas. If you want true historical fiction, read 'Claude and Camille' whose author has done thorough research about her subject and that makes for good reading about Impressionism.
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on March 17, 2012
I have been a dancer for twenty years, a history buff for nearly as long and a fan of Degas since childhood, so when I stumbled across this novel in a museum gift shop I thought it would be, if nothing else, a good read. I wasn't expecting a history of The Paris Opera Ballet or the great American novel, just the kind of interesting fictionalized portrait of another time and place that I have enjoyed in other (much more esteemable works). I was exceptionally disappointed with what I got instead.
Dancing for Degas tells the story of a poor country girl named Alexandrie rising for humble beginnings on a pepper farm in southern France to become a bright presence in the vaunted Paris Opera Ballet and a muse for the artist Edgar Degas. Over the course of the thirteen years in which the narrative takes place Alexandrie contends with familial obligation, theatrical rivalries, unrequited love, moral dilemmas and even a war which crippled the city of Paris.
And yet from all that rich backdrop came only a thin plot line told in a dully simplistic, methodical manner. The author does not weave these themes and plot points into a vibrant tapestry around her main character, but rather sends Alexandrie meandering through them in the flattest, most expositional way possible. There is no dimension to the world of the book, no sights or smells or textures, no feelings or sensations. There is nothing, save for the references to gowns and carriages, to give the reader a sense of Paris in the 1870's, not even the language. The tonal inconsistancies are jarring to say the least with modern phrasing and word usage peppering every page of the book. One notable example that stands out as I write this was the use of the term "tea-length" to describe the length of a skirt...in an era where all women wore floor length dresses...to tea and otherwise. On the rare occasions that the author remembers she's writing a historical novel the speeches become so grandiose and silly that I couldn't help but roll me eyes over them.
The lack of attention to details in general is really appalling. At one point we're asked to believe that in the space of a few hours Alexandrie and her mother travel from their home in the South of France to Paris...by carriage. As obssesed as Alexandrie is with maintaining her virtue she is frequently depicted wandering around the streets of the city in her shin-length tulle practice skirts. It is very clear that the author did a lot of research about Edgar Degas but did not bother herself much about ballet. Her constant misuse of terminology was laughable and despite the fact that the mid-nineteenth century was one of the most important and fertile to ballet as an art-form (creating the bulk of the classical canon and establishing the foundations of modern technique and training) she gives no attention at all to the teachers, the choreographers, or indeed even the ballets themselves which shaped the era...and would actually have supported Alexandrie's assertations about wanting to create art with dance.
Therein lies one of the worst aspects of the book: the grievious insult it does to ballet history and in particular to The Paris Opera Ballet. In this book the author relegates the oldest ballet school in the world to a kind of high brow brothel with the Ballet Master pimping out the veteran dancers and every one of them desperate to ensnare a wealthy man and become his mistress. It is true that their is a dark side to the Paris Opera Ballet's history. They have a long tradition of driving their dancers so hard that it borders on abuse, and yes it's true, the patrons of the ballet had a level of access to the dancers which is uncomfortable. But in that I mean that they watched rehearsals and classes, wandering in and out of the practice rooms, they saw the dancers after performances in the Foyer de Danse...they were certainly not allowed to treat the dancers as their own personal playthings. Of course their were dancers who slept with patrons and of course their were those who became mistresses but it was not ever the point of being a dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet. In fact ballerinas were expected to maintain at least the appearance of demure virtue, it seperated them from the cabaret girls. Few women made themselves rich by ballet alone but most were able to support themselves and had a level of independance which was uncommon in the nineteenth century. I understand that liberties are taken in historical fiction but to take scores of talented and ambitious women and make them into tutu'ed prostitutes is repelant.
This, at least is an opinion Alexandrie and I seem to share but when she runs out of options and must agree to see patrons "post-performance" in order to remain with the ballet she agrees, because she loves dancing so much and that's all she wants to do. Not be a traditional wife, not raise a family just puruse her art and that's it...until it's not. Her character changes gears abruptly in the book's last pages and (SPOILERSPOILERSPOILERSPOILER) she accepts an out-of-left-field marriage proposal from a man she's met twice, leaving the ballet and Paris behind for married life in America without a second thought. Though one could put this down to desperation, heartbreak and defeat wrought by too many years of fighting to keep a girlish dream alive it happens so suddenly that it's simply unbelievable, a sheer contradiction of nearly everything Alexandrie has been droning on about for the bulk of the over-long book.
I was surprised when I came on this site and saw so many positive reviews of this novel. I suppose to each their own but for my opinion I have to say that this is a dull, poorly written assault to history that fails to connect the reader on any level. Dancing for Degas seeks to bring depth to the man and the model responsible for so many great works of art and unfortunately winds up flatter than the canvases they're painted on.
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on April 27, 2010
When I was a girl I was absolutely obsessed with books about ballerina's. That in itself was not so uncommon, I know my little niece loves her ballet classes and dreams of being able to dance on stage and perform.

For years I've admired Degas' paintings depicting the ballerina's in Paris. There is just this.. calm, quiet grace about them. I'm not knowledgeable about art, by any means, but I've always enjoyed looking at these paintings and imagining the lives of the girls posing for them.

Kathryn Wagner delves into the life of a woman who may inspired many of Degas' paintings. A look into the life of the Parisian ballerina's is also offered and the story turns into a beautiful, if somewhat tragic, romance between the ballerina and the artist.

This was a beautifully written book. I read it in a morning, unable to put it down and breathed a sigh of somewhat wistful relief at the ending.
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on February 4, 2015
As an artist, I appreciated the research that supported the character of the fictional Degas. I was completely entranced by Alexandrie, anxious for her in the unrequited relationship with Degas, admiring of her sense of herself, and resigned to the fate -- her fate, as well as that of all women of that time and place.

I highly recommend this book to all who love the arts and wish to learn more about the life of ballet dancers, as well as one of the most famous painters of the 19th century.

Valli McDougle
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on September 15, 2013
This novel is focused on tying a ballerina to Edgar Degas' ballerina paintings. I did learn that the dancers were rich men's mistresses and some dancers were prostitutes. The ballerinas were poor girls from farm communities and they came to Paris for a better life.
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on November 8, 2010
This book brings Degas' complicated personality and conflicted artist persona to sharp detail. The author captures the nuances of the troubled artist and his need for isolation very well. It is a beautifully imagined work.

That said, the author herself admits that she made many presumptions--presumptions that I think would make any person with any accurate knowledge about the Parisian Ballet ashamed. Wagner writes the Ballerinas as prostitutes, making the "post-performances" a tradition for ballerinas over the age of 25. This detail is not unfolded slowly as a grand twist either--it's told to us, the reader, right from the beginning.
What's worse is that Wagner had a way out--the true story of the Ballet is that some of the Ballerinas became mistresses for older men, in arrangements made by their mothers--not by the Pimp Ballet Master. Wagner had a perfect character ready for the job in Alexandrie's reprehensible Maman. But for some reason she stepped away from that, and gave up a golden opportunity for character depth and development.

Not a terrible book, but a one-time read.
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on May 26, 2011
This book was a large disappointment to me. The heroine seemed to be more naive than she would be set in the world as she was. Her big quest was holding on to her virtue. It reminded me of a bad 1950s movie. I found no love of dance, art or the world of Paris could overcome her obsession to appear virtuous. I have nothing against someone remaining a virgin, but certainly her life sould have been wider given the opportunities the story presented her with.
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