Content Warning: protagonist is dealing with a lot of anger and some depression, various experiences of racism
Alina Keeler was destined to dance, but then a terrifying fall shatters her leg — and her dreams of a professional ballet career along with it.
After a summer healing (translation: eating vast amounts of Cool Ranch Doritos and binging ballet videos on YouTube), she is forced to trade her pre-professional dance classes for normal high school, where she reluctantly joins the school musical. However, rehearsals offer more than she expected — namely Jude, her annoyingly attractive castmate she just might be falling for.
But to move forward, Alina must make peace with her past and face the racism she experienced in the dance industry. She wonders what it means to yearn for ballet — something so beautiful, yet so broken. And as broken as she feels, can she ever open her heart to someone else?
Touching, romantic, and peppered with humor, this debut novel explores the tenuousness of perfectionism, the possibilities of change, and the importance of raising your voice.
Title: The Other Side of Perfect
Author: Mariko Turk
Genre: YA, Contemporary, Romance
Targeted Age Range: Young Adult
Representation: Half Japanese main character, Black side character, gay main characters, half Latinx main character, bisexual side character
Trigger Warnings: Severe injury (broken leg), racism, strained relationship with a parent, discussions of toxic masculinity, bullying
A huge thank you to TBR and Beyond Tours for having me on this blog tour and to Mariko Turk and the publishers for providing me with an ARC for this blog tour!
After I first heard about The Other Side of Perfect, I moved it up to the top of my TBR. I mean, it’s a book about the performing arts, how could I not want to read it? While yes, this is a book that prominently focuses on the performing arts (dance and musical theatre), this book is so much more than just that. This is a book about healing, self discovery, confronting the truth, and standing up for what’s right.
I just loved this book. I was moved by Alina’s story, her struggles and the strength that she found in herself when it felt as though her world was falling apart. Her growth from page 1 to page 323 was told in a beautifully realistic way that many will relate to and feel empowered by.
Alina is a character that I think many will see themselves in. I definitely saw parts of myself in her. Alina is flawed, and her flaws make her real and relatable. She’s dedicated her entire life to ballet. All she’s ever wanted is to be a professional ballerina, and she’s worked incredibly hard for it. When she suffers a severe break in her leg and her doctor tells her that she’ll never be able to dance at the same level again, she’s incredibly lost. I can’t imagine the pain of knowing that you’ll no longer have a chance to achieve your dream. This pain causes Alina to lash out, to be defensive, to be self pitying and to be selfish. While those are not great or necessarily redeeming qualities, they are understandable. She’s suffered a terrible loss, and people who have suffered terrible losses tend to do some not so great things. It doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it does explain it. And while there were moments where I wanted her to snap out of it, I was also fully aware that I have never been in that situation so I have no idea how I would react. But even when I wanted Alina to snap out of it, I was always rooting for her.
The characters in The Other Side of Perfect were so likable. I loved Alina’s family. Her parents were very supportive and encouraging and I loved all of their nerdy jokes. I really liked Alina’s younger sister, Josie. As a younger sister myself, she was definitely relatable, and I loved that she was also a dancer (modern not ballet). Josie was also a really good voice of reason, especially when it came to helping Alina realize some of the not so great things about ballet – but I’ll get into that in a moment. Alina’s friends were great as well. They brought a lot of energy and laughter. I loved the way they brought Alina into their friend group right away and that they encouraged and supported her. I must also point out that Ethan and Jude had the best bromance and I love that they called each other Gene and Fred after having a debate about who was Gene Kelly and who was Fred Astaire in the friendship. I could truthfully read an entire book just about their friendship.
Of course, I loved the musical theatre aspect of the story. I love Singin’ in the Rain, and was very excited that Alina’s school was putting on a production of the classic musical – as it’s one I think is often overlooked. It also fit into the plot of the book so well because Singin’ in the Rain is a very dance focused show and it made sense that Alina would choose to audition for it. It was also a great catalyst for Alina to broaden her horizons and realize that forms of dance besides ballet have merit.
“Maybe ballet was like beautiful dynamite. Stunning and dangerous at the same time, so you couldn’t love it simply. You had to figure out how to handle it. How to love the beautiful parts and defuse the dangerous ones”
While I loved all the musical references (Alina appreciating Sondheim and having a discussion about Sunday in the Park with George was absolutely a highlight) and Alina’s character growth, I think the thing that kept me most interested were the discussions on racism and prejudice within the ballet community. Last year I read a book called Turning Pointe (which was just released and I highly recommend!) that took a deep dive into the world of ballet and the way that racism plays a huge role in the community. Since then, it’s been something that’s weighed heavily on my mind, and I’m so glad that it’s a huge discussion point of The Other Side of Perfect.
Similarly to many of us, Alina has a hard time seeing the negative sides of something that she loves so much. Through ballet, she’s always been taught to stay quiet and dutiful , and to not question the choices made by her teachers/instructors. Because of this, Alina really struggled to acknowledge the racism that she’s experienced. It’s not until she’s no longer dancing that she even begins to come to terms with it.
Early on in the book, Josie calls out the racist norms in ballet, and we learn that it’s not the first time she’s done so. Each time she does, Alina brushes it off and gets upset with Josie, and it’s clear that because she’s been in the thick of it, Alina hasn’t wanted to look at the dark parts. As the story continues, she starts to confront these realities that she’s been ignoring. She starts thinking back on the roles that she’d been given, most notably, the role of Chinese Tea in The Nutcracker. A role that Alina had played for many years – it’s also important to note that Alina isn’t even Chinese. She’s half Japanese, this casting further enforces the belief that all Asian people are interchangeable. This role is one that perpetuates negative stereotypes and over the years has made many people (including myself) uncomfortable.
After having conversations with both Josie and her mom, Alina starts thinking about how being continually cast in the role of Chinese Tea has made her feel. She eventually admits to herself that she has been uncomfortable with the choreography, which involves lots of small shuffling steps and bowing. It also makes her think back to a conversation that she and Colleen (her best friend and only Black student at Kira Bobrow Ballet School) had the year before with their head teacher Kira. Alina and Colleen had been cast as Chinese Tea and Arabian Coffee, respectively, multiple times and wanted to know why. They simply ask Kira why they’ve continued to be cast in those roles and haven’t moved on to different roles. While neither brings up race, nor does Kira, it’s clear that underneath everything race was what was motivating Kira’s casting choices. It’s also slightly suspicious that after this conversation, there suddenly is an extra performance where Alina and Colleen will get to dance the roles that they’re understudying, both of which are usually danced by white girls.
The big moment of realization really comes when she sees Josie’s dance troupe, Variations, perform a shortened version of The Nutcracker, in which they perform an updated version of the Chinese Tea choreography. The choreography really moves Alina, and when she reads the program, she sees the following message from the director of Variations,
“My students and I have talked for years about the stereotypes in The Nutcracker’s national dances. I was beyond proud when a few of them approached me, saying they wanted to make these dances more accurate, sensitive, and complex representations of dance forms around the world. I think advanced student Josie Keeler put it best when she said, “For hundreds of years, The Nutcracker has perpetuated narrow, racist views of different cultures. That’s not how I want kids to see the world.”
The choreography, as well as the words from the director of Variations and Josie, make Alina think about how just because something has been done one way for generations, doesn’t mean that it can’t change. Alina really learns that you can love something and that it can be problematic. The two things are not mutually exclusive and the important thing is to acknowledge it and work toward change.
This realization is definitely one that does not come easily to Alina. It takes her a large chunk of the book to get there, but when she did I was so proud of her. It’s so difficult to acknowledge the problematic aspects of things that we love and even when you know confronting it and calling it out is the right thing to do, it’s just so hard. Another moment that made me so proud came toward the end when Alina and Colleen confronted Kira about the racism they had experienced. Confronting an adult, especially someone like a ballet teacher who you are taught to never question, is always difficult and takes a lot of courage.
The issue of racism in the ballet community is a serious one, and the more it’s discussed the more likely things are to change. I’m so glad that Mariko made it a major plot point and hope that more writers do the same.
This is a stunning debut novel. I was hooked from the start and never wanted to put it down. It was everything I wanted and more. I can’t wait for Mariko Turk’s next book, because if The Other Side of Perfect is any indication, it will be a stunner.
Please note that this post will be updated with own voice reviews when they are found.
Mariko Turk grew up in Pennsylvania and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a BA in creative writing. She received her PhD in English from the University of Florida, with a concentration in children’s literature. Currently, she works as a Writing Center consultant at the University of Colorado Boulder.
She lives in Colorado with her husband and baby daughter, where she enjoys tea, walks, and stories of all kinds.