The Art of Falling

As reviewed by Chris McNEAL

The Art of Falling begins when Penelope Sparrow, a ballet dancer, wakes up trapped in a hospital bed and an unresponsive body. She fell fourteen stories from her apartment balcony, but no one knows why. In the subsequent pages, author Kathryn Craft takes the reader back and forth through Sparrow’s mind as she recovers her body and memory. In so doing, Craft tells a moving and deceptively philosophical story. While much of the novel seems content to let the reader’s mind linger on whether Sparrow jumped or was pushed, Craft skillfully agitates the reader to ask better questions.

Sparrow had excelled as a dancer, but she lacked recognition because her hips were too large for the established ballet pedigree. This insurmountable barrier makes her vulnerable to eating disorders and an exploitative employer. But most tellingly, for most of the novel she judges others with the same criteria that have stunted her own life chances. One wonders whether Sparrow was any less trapped in the oppressive system to which she was blind than in her broken body after the fall. Our society has consigned itself to allocate its currency of meaning and even survival by sheer competition, and because ballet is so notoriously competitive, Craft’s story about a fallen ballet dancer raises questions about far more than ballet.

The Art of Falling aptly describes Sparrow’s darkness, but also provides a way out. Sparrow does rehabilitate her body, but more importantly, a cast of characters — each trapped in their own way — work to rehabilitate her soul and imagination. While some readers may find the supporting cast overly coincidental, I found them interesting and well developed. Also, Craft has suffered great personal tragedy in her own life. And to the extent that a degree of “yeah, right” can help relate the reader to her own experience of healing. I think she’s entitled to that.

One of the characters is Marty Kandelbaum, a Jewish man who owns a bakery and the passing car that saved Sparrow from hitting the pavement (like I said, “coincidental”). While Craft does not state so explicitly, the central story of Kandelbaum’s religious tradition is an exodus from oppression and into an unimaginable wilderness where the glory of God is revealed. And that glory is abundant bread. Sparrow’s life has been obsessed with movement, but Kandelbaum is the real choreographer of the story. He channels the pain and creativity of his religious heritage to move Sparrow from conformity to variety, from obsession to passion, from isolation to communion, from self-hatred to bread, and from self-denial to good wine.

The Art of Falling preaches without being preachy. It teaches without being sanctimonious. It drenches the reader in pain but beckons the reader to work that pain into creativity. Craft, in addition to being a lyrical writer, is a former ballet critic, and she empowers readers less familiar with ballet—like this one—to appreciate its nuances. Her debut novel has been mostly overlooked, but it deserves many readers.

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