This post is part of a blog tour organised by Random Things Blog Tours. I received a free copy of the book in return for an honest review.
‘Sisters Olivia and Clara rehearse with Ninette de Valois at the recently opened Sadler’s Wells. Disciplined and dedicated, Olivia is the perfect ballerina. But no matter how hard she works, she can never match up to identical twin Clara’s charm.
‘As rehearsals intensify for the ballet Coppélia, the girls feel increasingly as if they are being watched. And as infatuation threatens to become obsession, the fragile perfection of their lives starts to unravel.’
In Clara & Olivia, by Lucy Ashe, we’re transported to the glamorous, yet rigorous world of ballet in 1930s London. The eponymous twins are nineteen years old, in the corps de ballet at Sadler’s Wells, and on the cusp of something big.
Quiet, serious Olivia rests at home in the evenings and wants to work her way up to prima ballerina, while outgoing, daring Clara goes out most nights and dreams of stardom that transcends ballet.
Despite these differences, and Olivia’s fears she doesn’t match up to her sister, the pair are very close, sharing their lodgings and clothes and caring for each other in the absence of their hectoring mother, who is in a mental hospital.
Clara is stepping out with pianist and former child prodigy Nathan Howell, but she’s tiring of his earnest intellectualism and doesn’t want to be tied down. Olivia, meanwhile, has a secret admirer in the form of Samuel Steward, an apprentice who makes and delivers pointe shoes to the theatre and dreams of becoming a clothes designer himself.
Nathan or Samuel will end up taking their obsession too far - but you’ll have to read the book to find out which, and what happens.
I absolutely adored Clara & Olivia. I have a massive thing for books where the characters are so passionate about, and talented in, an area of the arts that they’re willing and able to engage with it day in, day out, so that was one box ticked for me straight away!
Right from the start, I felt immersed not only in the twins’ lives, but the wider industry of the theatre. I was mesmerised, inhaling dozens of pages in one sitting before looking up and being surprised by how much time had passed. This was especially the case for the last third of the book, when things get really tense.
I wasn’t surprised to find out the author was a trained ballerina herself, as the novel is so rich in detail about the dancers’ routines (in terms of both the moves they perform and what they do all day!), what is expected of a ballerina, and the big names of the day, at a time when British ballet was coming into its own. I couldn’t help but smile when ballet critic Arnold Haskell popped up, having drawn on his autobiography for my PhD on only children in history.
That’s not the only way Ashe firmly anchors the story in its historical context, though. We hear about the experiences of the twins’ late father, and Samuel’s father, in the First World War. The account of Clara and Olivia’s father being able to spend their first six months with them due to injury at the Front passes into family lore; by contrast, Samuel’s father has been transformed into a cruel bully by his war experiences. Meanwhile, the hospital the twins’ mother resides in is very much “of its time”.
I found the sisters’ relationship complex and compelling. At first, it seems that Olivia is primarily disdainful of Clara’s careless manner, and jealous of her bubbly personality and romance with Nathan, while Clara despairs that Olivia doesn’t have more fun. Later on, they conceal important information from one another.
But when we see the pair interact, it becomes clear just how close and loving they are towards one another. We also learn how Clara, as the stronger personality, protects Olivia from the unhealthy influence of their mother. In the absence of any other meaningful family relationships, they rely on each other completely, and always come through for one another.
Both women have the same worry that their sister is the better dancer, and that they’re seen as a novelty in ballet because there are two of them with the same face, so if the other one goes elsewhere, their own cachet will plummet.
Ashe also makes a point I’d never considered before: we say horrible things to ourselves we’d never say to, or even think about, other people - but if you’re an identical twin, how can you criticise your own appearance without hurting your sibling?
A central theme of the story is appearance versus reality. It’s very exciting to read about the exhilerating performances the company gives to appreciative audiences, the cultural events and wild nights Clara experiences, and the opportunities that materialise for the twins.
At the same time, though, the author never lets you lose sight of the gruelling, brutal nature of the discipline: ballet hurts, and there’s a limited timeframe in which you can “make it” before injury or age take you off the stage.
Similarly, both Nathan and Samuel obsess over the image that their twin of choice projects at particular moments - physical perfection and falling into line with the rest of the corps, as is required of them - and are discomfited when the sisters reveal themselves to be standard messy humans with minds of their own. One comes away from the experience disillusioned, but wiser; the other doubles down on trying to force “his” twin to be what he wants her to be.
Clara & Olivia is immersive, exciting, and gripping.