By Megan Abbott
Knopf Publishing Group — May 2022
ISBN: 9780593084922 — Paperback — 368 pp.
First released last August, but only recently out in paperback, The Turnout is the tenth novel from Megan Abbott, a popular suspense/crime writer whose work typically focuses on female perspectives. I have always heard good buzz around her novels, and I even have a couple sitting on my shelf that I hadn’t gotten around to reading yet.
This solidly constructed thriller affirms why Abbott’s work has been bestselling and award winning. The Turnout is propelled forward by a simplicity of suspense and atmosphere that make it immanently readable. Furthermore, the familiarity of everyday characters and seemingly mundane conflicts of work and family form a curtain of universal relatability for readers. Beyond that curtain lie secrets and crimes that Abbott allows poke out: dark, uncanny shivers and susurrations amid everyday life. With plotting and language she deftly builds suspense up to the shattering revelations of the novel’s climax.
Sisters Dara and Marie oversee the prestigious Durant School of Dance, an institution of ballet they inherited after the tragic death of their parents in a car accident. Dara’s husband Charlie works alongside the sisters. Once their mother’s prized student, who spent life growing up with the sisters as an adopted part of the Durant family, Charlie’s ballet talent buckled to injury. Now, the trio work fluidly in an intimate choreography of instruction, molding a new generation of dancers into ballet artists.
The clockwork precision and smoothness of the professional and personal lives of this trio becomes unbalanced when Marie suddenly decides to move out of the familial Durant home and crash at the dance studio, away from Dara and Charlie. Then, just as the school begins its preparation for their annual crowning performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, a fire breaks out from a space heater Marie has been using. Though firefighters save most of the school, extensive repairs become necessary just when the school is busiest and the family is most stressed.
From word-of-mouth recommendation, Dara hires a construction remodeler to repair the damage. Though relieved to see the team gets to quick work, Dara becomes increasingly concerned by the odd behavior and comments of the lead remodeler, Derek, who has seemingly enchanted Marie into an alarming relationship of sexual passion and psychological control. Strange accidents and setbacks to the repair begin to occur, and Dara begins to fear that Derek is not just further fragmenting the Durant family, but has his eyes set on much more.
One of the things that Abbott does very well is to convey the harsh, painful toll of ballet on the dancer’s body, from the feet on up. Dara repeatedly echoes the voice of her mother in encouraging and glorifying the torment and self sacrifice given by children for their art. It’s a bitter truth that any success involves struggle and pain, contortions and wounds. Something like that physically embodies this. Abbot takes this dark idea and runs with it, showing the manipulation of students by mentors that parallel the bodily manipulations of muscle and skeleton in the ballet dancer. The title of the novel refers to this specifically: the turnout, where a dancer achieves full 180-degree rotation of their feet to jut at a right angle from front, a physical achievement requiring contortions of the hip to manipulate human anatomy into atypical forms.
These themes of physical manipulation and pain center into the dynamics of all the character relationships, and the plot of The Turnout. The family strife, the histories of past trauma kept hidden, and the toxic agenda of Derek: these all echo the tolls taken by ballet for excellence. The difference, however lies in the questions of what one demands from (and gives of), oneself, versus what others selfishly take. That distinction is key, particular in the example of protagonist Dara, who is quite willing to endure pain for the sake or her art and things she controls, but refuses to bear it for others.
As the protagonist and point-of-view for the novel, Dara represents the most complex and developed character. It’s a shame that Abbott doesn’t put the same intricacy into the others. To an extent she has little choice. We can’t know the thoughts of others, and to reveal more depth in many would ruin the suspense or reveal truths prematurely. However, I do think that Marie could have been more of a focus for development and insight.
Despite the darkness of its plot elements, The Turnout is a pleasure read, an engaging thriller that doesn’t require much beyond reading and enjoying. Dara’s voice of growing confusion and fear lend a shadowy atmosphere where the reality of what faces her becomes obscured amid her assumptions and suppressed memories. This creates a perfect mood for suspense fans to enjoy, and I look forward to reading more of what she has written.