You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Jessie is a ballet dancer who pours her life into controlling her body. It must be kept slim, contained, and each muscle must be acting perfectly according to the assigned movements. Despite going home from classes having danced until her feet bled, Jessie feels her chances of becoming a professional ballerina are slipping away.
Dawn has lost control of her body. She keeps slipping into “fugues”–chunks of time where she loses conscious thought and retains no memories from. She feels an overwhelming pull towards the animalistic, her body keening for wildness. Her life, fragmented and antagonistic towards her BodyBeautifulTM mother and bitter stepfather, can’t continue this way for long. Something has to break.
Dawn and Jessie were once best friends, but they haven’t seen each other in about a decade. Their parents used to be just as close, but once relationships between the girls and between the pairs of parents crossed boundaries, the families moved apart and cut contact. When desperation on Dawn’s part gets her to reach out, the two start clumsily rebuilding a relationship together. Meanwhile, Jessie finds herself lost in a new, overwhelming, raw style of dance, and Dawn keeps returning to a bear in a cage in the woods.
Usually I wouldn’t give this much summary in a review. But I’m finding it hard to gather my own feelings about the story. I was completely immersed in it while I was reading it, and it definitely has a wild, passionate appeal to it. Both girls seem on the edge of losing control, and neither seem to know whether that would be a bad thing. Dawn’s descents into her fugues are accompanied by fragmented, poetic writing, communicating her changing thought processes. This really worked for me, and I couldn’t help rooting for Dawn even as she lashed out at everyone around her and jumped out her bedroom window to run into the woods.
I would expect Jessie’s story to pale in comparison to Dawn’s… were-bear story? But I actually ended up just as morbidly fascinated with her world of dance. She is brutally disciplined, and when she starts dancing a more interpretive style, you can feel the intensity of base, physical emotion pour off the page. I was wrapped up in both of their emotional journeys, but I had no idea where they were going to go. This is a story about, as the author note explains, being a girl in a girl’s body. It’s about the intensity of societal pressure on teen girls’ bodies. How do you tidily wrap that up?
You don’t, I suppose. I don’t know what to think of the ending, exactly. [vague spoilers] There is confirmation of the complex, queer, but not entirely defined relationship between Dawn and Jessie, but it’s unclear whether they will have any relationship in the future, or what will happen in either of their lives. [end spoilers]
This made for an intense reading experience, and I really enjoyed the use of language to convey their differing perspectives. If you’re interesting in reading about a book inspired by a Mary Oliver quote and the scrutiny placed on teen girls’ bodies, I would highly recommend this.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?