cover image Dancing for Degas

Dancing for Degas

Kathryn Wagner, . . Bantam, $15 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-385-34386-2

From Wagner’s debut, a fictional portrait of an aspiring ballerina who inspires famous works of art by Edgar Degas, a living picture emerges of dancers at the turn-of-the-20th-century Paris Opera. After gangly 12-year-old Alexandrie’s brother marries a girl even poorer than himself, Alexandrie becomes her provincial family’s last hope for prosperity, and soon she’s taking lessons in ballet and culture to prepare herself for Paris society. Once in Paris, Alexandrie follows star performer Cornelie’s lead and quickly snags a prospective patron, but she’s most powerfully drawn to Degas, who captures on canvas the dancers’ beauty and humanity. Like Tracy Chevalier, Wagner imagines how layers of meaning pervade works of art, but her real forte is detailing the sexual politics of poverty and evoking the rivalry among dancers, especially between stars and the newcomers who wish to replace them. Wagner’s description of art and sacrifice in old Paris doesn’t have the heft of the classics, but her abandonment of the masterpiece-in-the-making formula is a nice turn. (Mar.)