A Conversation about DANCER, DAUGHTER, TRAITOR, SPY

Elizabeth Kiem’s DANCER, DAUGHTER, TRAITOR, SPY (Soho Teen) is a young adult (YA) set during the 1980’s.  The main character Marina, is studying at the Bolshoi ballet company in Moscow.  Her mother Sveta is a famous prima ballerina, but she has a problem: visions of terrible things that have happened in the past.  When Sveta sees something terrible that the Russian government covered up, she cannot keep silent, and winds up institutionalized.  Marina and her father have to flee the country and seek asylum in America.  Marina isn’t sure who to trust in her new life—it seems that her father is keeping company with the local mafia, and that her new dance partner may be much more than a dancer—he may be a spy.  Marina must decide who is telling her the truth—and who may know the truth about her family.

Erica Ruth Neubauer: Tell the truth Beth. Is the reason you liked this book so much because it has to do with the ballet?

Beth McIntyre: That may be some part of the truth, or A truth if not THE WHOLE truth, and it’s for sure true.

Yes.

I liked this book because it had to do with the ballet.

Erica Ruth: Fair enough. I don’t have the same level of interest in ballet per say, but I liked the Russian spy angle. And really there wasn’t a TON of actual ballet.

Beth: There wasn’t. There was a lot of shady Bolshoi politics, which can be just as interesting as the dancing. 
I was just looking through a few articles I read in the past year about the awful year Russian ballet is having, and one of them was written by the author of this book, I hadn’t even realized.

Erica Ruth: I mean, I find shady politics–even those of the famous Russian Bolshoi ballet–super intriguing.
OH!  And the same author.  Fascinating. Why are they having such a terrible year?

Beth: It turns out the corruption that plagued the dance company in the early 80’s, when the novel is set, stuck around long after the fall.
 They had a rough year of allegations of corruption, prostitution and a really nasty acid-in-the-face attack on their artistic director.
I mean, it’s AWFUL.
The kind of awful I just can’t stop reading about.
At all.

Erica Ruth:  Acid-in-the-face is compelling like that.
What did you think about the characters? I liked the protagonist Marina…I felt like while she had some hysterical moments (but what teenage girl doesn’t), overall she handled her immigration to the US and loss of her mother well.
(I mean, her mother didn’t necessarily DIE, she was locked up in an institution.)  (In Russia. Which I bet was the best time ever had.)

Beth: Haha. When she got so stressed about having visions of her mother as an old, haggard woman I wanted to be like, “Marina, honey. Wrinkles and scraggly hair are the least of her worries.”
I liked Marina a lot, though. I read a lot of young adult novels, so I spend a lot of time in the mind of fictional teenagers.

Erica Ruth: So how did Marina rate?

Beth: It was refreshing how, even in her moments of drama, self-possessed she was. She was smart, but didn’t figure things out too quickly, which was realistic and kept the tension going.

Erica Ruth: I agree. She was composed, and even when she was stressed about her mother, or her father getting in with the Russian mafia, she kept her eye on what she needed to do.
 And worked towards keeping her family (what was left) together.

Beth:  Exactly.
There was a line near the beginning of the book, when she first found out that her mother was missing, and she and her father were going to have to hightail it to the US under a cloak of darkness, that I really liked.

Erica Ruth: I especially like the idea of a cloak of darkness.

Beth: I have always wanted to do something under a GIANT dramatic cloak of darkness, so I thought I’d throw that in.

Erica Ruth: But we digress.

Beth:  Always.
Anyway, she was trying to piece all the information her father was giving her, which could have been a lie, or the truth, or the truth as far as he knew it, or delusional nonsense, and she kept attempting to parse out her place in all of it, and finally came up with:
 “This is a story about my mother and father, not their daughter.” 
I thought that line kind of set the tone for the whole book.

Erica Ruth: Agreed.  It was amazing.

Beth: She’s a teen girl, she’s going to think of things in terms of herself (I mean, we all do), but with each new twist in the story, it gets further and further away from her.

Erica Ruth:  And she’s able to see what her place in that is, or not at all. Shows an amazing amount of perspective on her part.

Beth: Exactly.
 But still, dancing and boys still occupied a lot of her time. Which kept things real.

Erica Ruth: I also really liked how the love interest (because of COURSE there is a love interest, you guys) wasn’t immediately apparent to her. She did not catch on to his interest for a while, which I found very charming.

Beth: OH, it was charming.
What I also found charming was the voice Kiem gave her. 
I appreciated the subtle difference in dialog between when she was supposed to be talking to characters in Russian, or in her limited English.
 Of course, we read it all in English, but parts that were supposed to be in Russian flowed a lot more smoothly, and that was very clever.

Erica Ruth: VERY clever. It was very subtle but used to good effect. I think it showed her comfort with Russian and that aspect of her life and how learning English and her new country was more difficult and stilted.

Let’s talk about the creepy uncle.
 Because he was creepy, right?

Beth: Oh, Uncle Gosha.
 I imagined that he smelled like sausages.

Erica Ruth: HAHAHA!! I was imagining a very cheap cologne….and entirely too much of it. Maybe some gold chains. 
He was such an important character though, since he ultimately led to her father’s downfall.
 Sausage stink and all.

Beth: Her father was an interesting character to me, too, and I wondered if he wouldn’t have lost it even without Uncle Sausage around.
 Most of his actions from the time they left Moscow, and even probably before, were reactions, and desperate ones.

Erica Ruth: True. He was sort of coming unhinged there.

Beth: Oh man. 
So unhinged.

Erica Ruth: The visions were also an interesting plot point. Both Marina and her mother Sveta, the famous Russian ballerina, had those visions of terrible things. Without them there would have been no impetus to leave Russia or loss of Sveta. 
I mean, beyond the OBVIOUS impetus to ever leave Russia.

Beth: Yeah! To be honest, at first I found the visions a little annoying, I was a little disappointed, it seemed like she was going to be able to solve the mystery because she had this special power. I like my lady mystery-solvers to use nothing but their brains and their ballet slippers. After significant things changed in the action, though, her visions of what will happen to Sveta changed as well. I liked that. That the future she saw changed.

Erica Ruth: YES. I like the concept that nothing is written in stone….the future can be re-written. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching so much Doctor Who.

Beth: Maybe Uncle Sausage WAS Doctor Who!

Erica Ruth: Doctor Who would never be that gross.

Beth: I have not actually watched that much Doctor Who, so I get it mixed up with Quantum Leap sometimes.
 So that’s probably not even possible.

Erica Ruth: Now I’m imagining Uncle Sausage looks like the Quantum Leap guy. (What’s his NAME?)

Beth: Scott Bakula.

Erica Ruth: GOD. Yes. Scott Bakula is Uncle Sausage.

Beth: Haha.

Erica Ruth: WAIT. NO. Isn’t Scott Bakula Charles in Charge?

Beth: No, that’s Scott Baio.

Erica Ruth: My memory is worthless.

Beth: I think a fun new game for any book you read is try to guess which character is actually Scott Bakula leaping into the story.

Erica Ruth: HAHAHAHA.  Let’s play that.  Always.

Beth: So. 
I have a question for you.

Erica Ruth: I am ready.

Beth: Without giving too much away.

Erica Ruth: Hit me.
 OH the anticipation.

Beth: So, you and I talk about books a lot, and how it’s very easy for both us to lose ourselves in a mystery.

Erica Ruth: Yes. Those are facts.

Beth: And how the “I TOTALLY saw that coming!” thing usually does not apply to us. Blissfully so.
So, did you figure out what was actually going on with the mysterious Russian dance partner she was paired up with after she was accepted into Juilliard?

Erica Ruth: NO.
 But I was really glad that went the way that it did.

Beth: I am embarrassed to tell you: 
I read this book twice, and it was a surprise the SECOND time as well. The one and only benefit of having a horrible memory.

Erica Ruth: HAHA! I am often surprised by re-reads in the same way. It’s sort of comforting that we share that terrible memory.

Beth: This book is so twisty and great.

Erica Ruth: It really is. I’ll admit that it took me a few chapters to get invested, but once I was, I really enjoyed it.

Beth: I like pulling a teenage girl out of a privileged life in her home country, and watching her try to get to the bottom of an international conspiracy while trying to learn a language and figure out a new culture as a premise. She can’t trust anyone’s motives because everyone is so corrupt, but she also might not be able to figure out anyone’s motives anyway.

Erica Ruth: So true. She isn’t sure she can even trust her father. It adds a lot to the tension of the story.  Setting it in the 80’s is also inspired. Lends a further depth to the story simply because of the political turmoil at the time.

Beth: Anyway. 
I don’t know how to wrap this up.

Erica Ruth: Well. Wrapping this up is awkward. But we hope you like the book.

Beth: We do.
At least I do.
I think Erica does too.
I think we both do.

Erica Ruth: Yes. Well. I apologize for speaking for the both of us.

Beth: Don’t apologize.

Erica Ruth: I’m not actually sorry.

Beth: NO REGRETS.

Erica Ruth: NO REGRETS, Beth. And you probably won’t regret this book, folks.

Beth: That was clever, girl.

Erica Ruth: Well, you know. I have my moments.

Erica Ruth is a Crimespree staff member, to read more of her work, click here.

Beth is a youth services librarian and a sucker for high school murder mysteries. She lives in an old house at the end of a dead end street in Boston, MA.