The Flamenco Academy
by Sarah Bird
Knopf, 381 pp., $25
The Flamenco Academy follows the friendship of two young women drawn together as teenagers by their fathers' untimely deaths and their mothers' abandonment Rae's for a cultish group of "Amish wannabe" Christians, and Didi's for eBay and soup-bowl quantities of margarita. Rae's role as the reserved sidekick to the outgoing Didi someone who always seems like "there should be a bank of footlights between her and the rest of the world" paves the way for her obsession with a handsome flamenco guitarist she meets at a party, an obsession that leads the inseparable friends to join the dance program at a renowned flamenco academy. Here, under the bewitching influence of flamenco culture and its romantic Gypsy heritage, Didi blossoms while Rae fine-tunes a persona sufficient to attract Tomás, the object of her ever-consuming affections from afar.
Sarah Bird has said that Academy is her most autobiographical novel in that she reveals "the utter irrationality and humiliating self-annihilation" of her own late-teens/early-20s bout with an obsessive love affair. Indeed, Rae's journey proves irrational and humiliating to witness. Already the doughy, invisible-eyebrowed, math-nerd counterpart to the waify, exotic, and rebellious Didi, Rae seems especially ill-suited to the world of flamenco, which is all stretchy black lace and unbridled passion. But through the kind of steely determination usually reserved for movie montages, Rae pretty much succeeds in her transformation. There's something a little Disney-esque to the book in this regard; perhaps Bird initially oversells her quirky teen-spy-esque missions and larger-than-life characters ("Groupie Queen" Didi, with her talent for sleuthing out rock stars' hotel numbers, and math-genius Rae, whose love of factoring polynomials translates into an uncanny knack for nailing flamenco's complex rhythms).
But these same exaggerations are what bring to life the world of the flamenco academy and especially the fairy-tale story-within-the-story woven by the fabulous elderly Gypsy instructor Doña Carlota, with her gnarled feet and her unflattering nicknames for the students. She teaches her ancient art through stories of an adolescence spent in pre-World War II Spain as a ragged, flea-bitten child shunned by the larger society and saved by dance. In this tragic and ruthless realm, "flamenco puro" inspires men to rip the shirts from their chests and women to dig their nails into their faces until they draw blood, and a true Gypsy singer's voice "is the sound a man makes when the world tries to choke him to death at birth and he sings anyway."
It's in this world, where the most downtrodden are the most defiant, and the most genuine self-expression is the most disturbing, that we come to see what kind of earth-moving it really takes for a person who lives for the approval of others to transcend her own limitations. And it's here that we see Bird's talent for convincingly illustrating how even the most functional and vibrant people exist along a precipice of neurotic self-destruction. In the monolithic culture of flamenco, Bird finds a remarkable landscape for transforming the inaccessible whims of an obsessive, lonely teenager into the epic saga of self-acceptance, loyalty, and love to which no one is immune.
Sarah Bird will be at Barnes & Noble Arboretum on Monday, June 12, 7:30pm, and at BookPeople on June 28 at 7pm.