How far would you go to make your wildest dreams come true? Bright Burning Stars, the debut from Pittsburgh author, A.K. Small, examines the risks one will take for the greatest reward.
Split between two points of view, the young adult novel follows best friends Marine Duval and Kate Sanders during their final year as students at the elite Paris Opera Ballet School. At the end of the year, one boy and one girl are selected to receive the “ultimate prize” – a spot in the prestigious Paris corps de ballet.
Naturally, both girls want this honor for themselves. Marine, a mild-mannered French native, is motivated by the death of her twin brother who was an effortlessly gifted dancer but passed away before getting to attend the school. Throughout the book, it’s unclear whether she actually wants the prize for herself, or if she is has taken on her brother’s dream and is pursuing it out of obligation. Kate, an eccentric American whose mother disappeared at a young age, seems to have more pure talent than Marine, but her constant need for attention and deep-seated insecurities cripple her focus on ballet.
Their relationship gets more complicated following Kate and Marine’s pact by moonlight – when they first become friends, they vow that if one girl won the prize, the other would decline unless both girls can be chosen. To initiate this pact, Kate and Marine snuck out of their shared room after-hours. When the girls are caught outside of their room – an expellable offense – Kate immediately runs away, leaving Marine trailing behind wondering why her moon sister abandoned her. This moment, which happens early on in the book, defines their relationship. The question throughout is, will Kate backstab Marine in the end? Moreover, if Marine wins, would she sabotage her dream for Kate?
Aside from Kate and Marine’s toxic relationship, Bright Burning Stars tackles heavy themes like eating disorders, mental illness, suicide, and the cut-throat world of competitive ballet. As someone who has never been exposed to professional ballet, the dynamism of that world is fascinating. Small, now based in Pittsburgh, was born in Paris, studied at the Parisian ballet school Académie Chaptal, and then danced with ballet companies across the U.S. Her experience comes through in her writing, and Bright Burning Stars was inspired by the dancers from her childhood. However, while the book is a quick, thrilling read, the content is what would be expected about a school for young ballet dancers. With movies like Black Swan, the mentally and physically draining world of ballet is far from a mystery.