Megan Abbott’s The Turnout Stars Ballerina Sisters in a Horrifying Dance of Sex and Death

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While Megan Abbott’s body of work began with noir and has since given way to contemporary thrillers, her novels captivate with plenty of familiar horror elements: a non-medical “fever” that has a town’s teenagers in its clutches, sending them into disturbing seizures and inexplicably passing from girl to girl. Extreme periods that turn women murderous at “that time of the month” and then pass, leaving them with a corpse and no reasonable alibi. The cult-like devotion of athletic teams, be they cheerleaders or gymnasts, often centered around a truly singular woman holding these incredible performers in her thrall.

Female relationships in Abbott’s books are peerless, both in terms of the genre and within each unique story; whether these pairs are teammates or BFFs or competing for the sole “girl spot” in the workplace, their worlds shrink down to the space between two bodies, two minds, and often one shared traumatic event. The shock of puberty, the devastating power of sexuality, a secret that must be protected at all costs, a murder that cannot derail this duo’s dream—that’s when things get gory. The Turnout, Abbott’s latest, set at a ballet academy run by polar-opposite sisters, does not shy away from such gruesome truths.

Abbott’s tenth novel is her first account of sisters, despite a long history of writing girls and women so intimately entwined in adolescence as to seem related. After losing their parents to a tragic car accident in their teens, sisters Dara and Marie inherit the family business, the Durant School of Dance, and carry on their daunting mother’s tradition of molding talented and impressionable young dancers. Each year culminates in the iconic performance of The Nutcracker—many a girl or boy’s first unforgettable introduction to the beauty of ballet—and the heated search over the perfect Clara and her Nutcracker prince.

Despite their intense closeness and the loss that bonded them, the sisters are inverses of one another: cool, dark-haired Dara marries Charlie, the dancer brought into their home at 13; she takes on their mother’s moniker of Madame Durant and is the one entrusted with the academy’s protegé(e)s as they begin the hormonal limbo into young adulthood. Dara and Charlie, whose career ambitions were crushed by a series of devastating bodily traumas that leave him with chronic pain, run the business side of the Durant School of Dance while playing house in their childhood home.

Then there is Marie, the blonde and hot-blooded Mademoiselle Durant, who connects so well with the school’s youngsters because she seems trapped in arrested development herself. Her disconnect from the business side of the school is one of many ways in which she represents their father, a physically violent man who never quite understood how his wife shaped their daughters and later their young male stray. Marie’s departure from their childhood home for a grand Eurotrip before the book’s events, followed by her skulking back and taking up residence in the dance school’s attic, places her in a liminal space, like the cliché of a millennial young adult moving back in. Yet Marie is every inch the dancer that Dara is, the Black Swan to her White Swan—able to physically articulate her desires instead of reining them in, maddeningly unpredictable but also uninhibited in a way that Dara could never permit herself to be.

The narration at first affects an almost fairytale-like remove in how it sets up the increasingly toxic dynamic of Dara, Marie, and Charlie, eventually coalescing in Dara’s perspective alone. This close-third limitation is in stark contrast to Abbott’s other third-person thrillers like You Will Know Me and The Fever, both of which dip in and out of an entire community’s heads as different members grapple with, respectively, one girl’s Olympic gymnast aspirations and an entire class of girls’ psychological epidemic.

While the Durant School of Dance commands its own company of cliquey (pre)teen dancers and overbearing stage moms (and dads!), plus an extended network of annual collaborators in dance, costume, and stage design, it is telling that we remain solely in Dara’s head. Not even Marie nor Charlie get to share their side, because as far as Dara is concerned, she knows everything about her sister and her husband, and is able to anticipate their every move. This myopic view, then, hews closer to the first-person narration of Give Me Your Hand and Dare Me, withholding key information from the reader and the protagonist at tragic cost. Unlike the aforementioned books, doing so in The Turnout can be frustrating for a reader who begins to anticipate exactly what Dara steadfastly refuses to acknowledge for herself.

An unexpected fire in one of their studios at the start of Nutcracker season necessitates the hiring of Derek, a hulking, overtanned, smarmy contractor who channels the primal aspects of their father with his big hands and snapping belt. Yet somehow Derek seems better able than the Durants to envision a more ambitious future for the Durant School: the ruined studio rising from the ashes, an excuse for a long-needed renovation. But rather than helping the academy evolve into its best self, Derek instead unleashes a primal force from within the charred skeleton of Studio B, when he begins a sordid sexual affair with the helplessly enthralled Marie. Both her breathless recitals to Dara, as well as her repressed sister’s involuntary imaginings, compare the soft pink of pointe shoes, hammered and scraped into use, with vulvas in a fashion that can get tiresome as the gut-churning affair continues.

This forcible expansion of the existing threesome into a foursome ratchets up the domestic drama with an edge of psychological terror, as Derek insinuates himself not just into Marie’s body but into the carefully tuned inner workings of their family, their business, and their home. This portion of the novel is where Abbott is most masterful, depicting the creeping threat of someone who is not just physically intimidating but emotionally menacing—as Derek pokes into old deeds but also prods at the delicate dance between Marie, Charlie, and Dara. The call is coming from inside the house, with the inevitable confrontation either confirming readers’ twisted suspicions or coming as a deliciously dark reveal.

Despite The Turnout bearing Abbott’s trademark examination of how sex and self-preservation irrevocably alter the course of ordinary people’s lives, it is more subtly gruesome than, say, the killer periods and laboratory sabotage of Give Me Your Hand. So much of the dancer’s outward beauty and grace belies the warped feet, ruined toenails, and deprived bodies—blood pooling beneath the skin instead of freely shed. Yet Dara’s description of a dancer’s first turnout—rotating the lower body 180 degrees until they resemble “a doll with its legs put on backward”—sounds as surreal as The Exorcist’s infamous 360-degree head-turn.

The Turnout is perhaps best suited for either diehard Abbott fans or those who have lived the uncompromising rigor of ballet. However, if you are new to her bibliography, I envy you the delightful reading journey upon which you are about to embark. If the Durant sisters’ competitive world sparks interest, check out Dare Me’s unflinching depictions of how brutal high school cheerleading actually is, or the inspirational (and cutthroat) path to Olympics gymnastics in You Will Know Me. If you, like me, came looking for a bit more gore amid the female competition, don’t hesitate to pick up Give Me Your Hand. And if you want to start with teenage girls and the insidious ways they make each other’s lives a horror, you’ll be set with The End of Everything and The Fever. Regardless of where you start, may you enjoy your dance with darkness.


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