The Master's Muse

A Novel

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About The Book

An exquisite, unforgettable novel about the true love affair between two artistic legends: George Balanchine, the choreographer widely considered the Shakespeare of dance, and his wife and muse, Tanaquil Le Clercq.

Copenhagen, 1956: Tanaquil Le Clercq, known as Tanny, is a gorgeous, talented, and spirited young ballerina whose dreams are coming true. She is married to the love of her life, George Balanchine—the famous mercurial director of New York City Ballet—and she has become a star around the world. But one fateful evening, only hours after performing, Tanny falls suddenly and gravely ill; she awakens from a feverous sleep to find that she can no longer move her legs.

Tanny is diagnosed with polio and Balanchine devotes himself to caring for his wife. But after Tanny discovers she will never walk again, their relationship is challenged as Balanchine returns to the company, choreographing ballets inspired by the ever-younger, more beautiful and talented dancers. Their marriage is put to the ultimate test as Tanny battles to redefine her dreams.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Master's Muse includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Varley O'Connor. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
 

Introduction

It is often said, behind every great man, there is a great woman. In the case of celebrated and esteemed choreographer George Balanchine, there were several. The Master’s Muse is the spectacular reimagining of his fifth and final wife, Tanaquil Le Clercq. At just twenty-seven years old, Tanny’s brilliant career as a ballerina was ended and her entire world shattered when she contracted polio. She lost her ability to dance, and with that, feared the loss of her husband’s affection and desire. Varley O’Connor masterfully enters the mind of Tanny and delivers a first person perspective on life as a ballerina, polio victim, and muse to one of ballet’s most famous figures of the twentieth century.

Topics & Questions for Discussion 
 
1.  The Master’s Muse is broken up into three parts: “polio,” “Being Russian,” and “The Body.” Discuss the significance of these three part titles as they relate to the story, along with the quotes that open each one.

 
2.  In the prologue, Tanaquil reflects on her marriage to George: “I didn’t realize to what extent dance, for George, was love.” (p. 8) How does this prove true throughout the rest of their story? How does their inability to dance or collaborate together after Tanny contracts polio affects their relationship?

3.  When the polio paralyzes Tanny’s legs, it puts an end to her career as a ballerina and completely changes her life. She recognizes her loss, thinking: “my legs that were once everything . . . My legs: my weapons, my wings.” (p. 34) What do you consider your weapons or wings? What would be most difficult to have taken away from you?

4.  Compare Tanny’s relationships with George, Jerry, and Carl. How does she love each of them and how does each of these men affect her life—for better or worse?

5.  At a few different points in the narrative, Tanny reflects on the different versions of herself.  On page 8, she says that the events of the 1956 tour “created a ‘me’ to posterity that superseded anything I had been before—and the ‘me’ inside of what happened.” Later, she discusses about waking up and remembering she has polio, at which point she “would have to decide all over again to get up and be who I was now” (p. 107). How do you interpret her use of “me”? Have you ever felt you’ve become a new or different “you”?

6.  After Tanny decides not to take her own life, she believes that George really would have helped her to end it if she wanted to. Do you agree? Do you think he ever even got the pills? Why or why not?

7.  Tanny’s father tells her that he thinks “All men should have children. It’s an unrecorded fact that men need to have children more than women do.” (p. 161) Discuss the merit of this statement—do you agree? How would you apply this concept to the characters in The Master’s Muse? To people you know?

8.  Discuss Tanny’s different reactions to George’s infatuation with other women. How do her feelings about Diana differ from the way she feels about Suzanne? Why do you think she’s able to be cordial with Suzanne and be friends with Diana?

9.  Why do YOU think George doesn’t want to get divorced when Tanny first asks him to leave, and then later goes behind her back in Mexico? Why do you think George and Tanny stayed together as long as they did?

10.  George said, “Energy’s endless . . . You think there isn’t anymore, and then there is.” (p. 210) How does the idea of resurgent energy recur as a theme throughout the book? How does it apply to George and Tanny’s relationship?

11.  When visiting George in the hospital, Tanny confides in him that she should have married Carl because it was what he wanted; it was something she could have done for him. Is that enough of a reason to marry someone? Why do you think she was resistant to the idea when Carl first brought it up?

12.  Who do you think is the master’s muse? Is it Tanny? What do you take away from this title having now read the book?

Enhance Your Book Club

1.  Many of the characters in The Master’s Muse really existed. Learn more about them by picking up one of George Balanchine’s biographies, such as All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine by Terry Teachout, George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker by Robert Gottlieb, or Balanchine: A Biography by Bernard Taper.

2.  Tanny developed a passion for cooking, and even put together The Ballet Cookbook, which was published in 1966. Copies may be hard to find these days, but that shouldn’t stop you from incorporating some Russian treats into your book club discussion.  Choose from dozens of authentic and delicious looking recipes at www.ruscuisine.com.
3.  Luckily, the polio vaccine has made cases today almost nonexistent. To get a better understanding of the virus and its history, visit www.historyofvaccines.org/content/timelines/polio

4.  Check out YouTube to see an actual recording of Tanaquil Le Clercq dancing Afternoon of a Faun with Jacques d’Amboise at www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmnnhq_ZXlw. How did watching this video affect your idea of who Tanny was and your overall reading of The Master’s Muse?

A Conversation with Varley O’Connor

While a very different book, your last novel, The Cure, is also about the destructiveness of polio. What interests you about the topic and made you want to write about it in two separate books?

My father contracted polio as a child, when he was three. His entire childhood was about braces and surgeries and, finally, beginning to walk again. But the journey shaped his personality. His polio made me curious about how illness and disability determines who people become, in positive as well as negative ways. My father had a tremendous power of will, as Tanny does.

What attracted you to Tanaquil Le Clercq as a narrator for a novel? 

She became a huge international star, married one of the most famous men of her time, and then she was suddenly crippled. I thought readers would be fascinated to hear what it was like to live a life of such extremes. I certainly was as I delved into research, especially interviews she gave and stories people told about her.

Describe the experience of creating a work of fiction about real people. What were the challenges and how was it different than the experience of writing any of your other novels?

I had to do a lot of research, but I like research. What was hardest was digesting the research. In a novel, you don’t want the research to stick out. So I’d read my facts over and over, pretty much memorizing them. That way, the facts came through organically in the story. Or I hope they do.

Did you ever consider writing from someone else’s perspective or alternating perspectives for The Master’s Muse? Why or why not?

I never thought of using any perspective other than Tanny’s. She was the person who originally drew me to the story, and I learned that she never wrote a memoir. So I wanted this to be her story. I tried to write the book of her life she never wrote.

How did you go about your research for this novel? Are there any parts of The Master’s Muse that aren’t true, or required more creativity and imagination than research?

Because there was no memoir or biography about Tanny, the facts were scattered over many resources. It was quite a job connecting the dots! That’s where my imagination came in. So much is written about Balanchine that recreating what their relationship must have been like wasn’t that difficult. Harder were the parts in the novel when Tanny is alone. Carl, for instance, is an invented character.

Was there ever a time in the course of writing this book that you wished you could change the facts? Did you find that history or truth ever got in the way of good storytelling?

I became so fond of my main characters that I wished Tanny and George would have gotten back together. But in terms of storytelling, the fact that they didn’t get back together probably makes a better story. It’s more complicated that way, there’s more suspense, and it challenged my inventiveness as a writer. I had to find ways to make the facts work dramatically.

How did you decide where to begin and end Tanny’s story?

I knew very early in the process where it would begin and end. For me, the polio was a sort of refining fire for both Le Clercq and Balanchine. It reshaped them in many ways, as individuals and as a couple. And it had a huge impact on Balanchine’s work. So I knew I’d start with the polio, that great terrible challenge. As for the end, I saw Balanchine’s final illness as in some ways parallel to Le Clercq’s polio. He helped her through her illness, and she helped him through his.  

What kind of ending might you have given George and Tanny if you could have written their real story?


I have no idea. It took such belief and commitment to write the book as it is, that at this point I can’t imagine it happening any other way. 

What are you working on next? Do you have any new projects coming up?


 I’ve started research on a new novel. It’s again based on a true story. There are two main characters, a young girl and a woman. It also involves illness and fame. And, at least for the woman character in the story, it is also driven by romantic passion.   

If you could ask Tanaquil Le Clercq one question, what would it be?


I hope she would like the novel. Perhaps that’s what I’d ask her. I did everything in my power to write a book true to her essence and her world.

About The Author

Photograph by Joel Wapnick

Varley O’Connor is the author of three novels. She teaches fiction and creative nonfiction writing at Kent State University and for the Northeast Ohio Universities Consortium MFA program.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (May 2013)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451657753

Raves and Reviews

“A thoroughly researched and lively tribute toboth the couple (Le Clercq became Balanchine’s fourth wife when she was 23 andhe was 48) and the essence of a private, dauntless woman struck down by polioat the height of her career.”

– Vogue.com

“A highlyreadable, absorbing account of the interdependence between Tanaquil Le Clercqand George Balanchine. A must read for dance fans.”

– Washington Independent Review of Books

The Master’sMuse is most interestingwhen O’Connor does try to get inside Le Clercq’s head. O’Connor’s writing is atits best here, too, and it’s very readable throughout.”

– Capital New York

“Thewriting is as beautiful as Tanny herself. “

– Spencer Daily Reporter

"Loving Frank was a novel about architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s most scandalous love affair. The Paris Wife centered on the first Mrs. Ernest Hemingway. Into this group of well-researched novelizations of famous love lives comes Varley O’Connor’s The Master’s Muse, about New York City Ballet artistic director George Balanchine."

– O. The Oprah Magazine

"Choreographer George Balanchine’s fifth wife, ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, never wrote about her relationship with her husband, but if she had we can only hope it would be as graceful and penetrating as what O’Connor portrays in [The Master's Muse]. This passionate novel not only gives a glimpse into the ballet world of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, its eccentric characters bring the story to life."
--Publishers Weekly

"A fictional portrait of ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq’s struggle with polio—and George Balanchine. This is not a novel about victimization or the malevolence of genius, but rather about the painful accommodations all of us make for the things and people we love. Thoughtful, tender and quite gripping, even for readers unfamiliar with the historical events the author sensitively reimagines."

– Kirkus Reviews

"What a rare pleasure to be introduced to Tanaquil Le Clercq through The Master’s Muse. I was enchanted from the first page by Varley O’Connor’s graceful portrait of this remarkable woman. How privileged we readers are to have the life in all of its strength and intelligence and elegance. Le Clercq is rendered without fuss or ornament, in a manner wholly at one with the beauty she and Balanchine strove for in their art."

– Paul Harding, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Tinkers

"A brilliant novel in memoir form, The Master's Muse is pure magic. As I read and was thoroughly absorbed by the writing, the remarkable characters, and the story, I simply could not believe this was a work of fiction, not an authentic memoir, expertly written. The Master’s Muse is a superb performance by Varley O'Connor. From one writer to another, my hat's off."

– Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab's Wife, Abundance, and Adam & Eve

"An utterly gorgeous rendering of the life of ballerina Tanaquil Le Clercq, whose career was destroyed overnight by polio in 1956. O'Connor vividly recreates the personalities and intrigues of the dance world of the fifties and sixties, but her greatest triumph is in her fascinating portrait of the steely Le Clercq and the enigmatic Balanchine, who first made her his perfect ballerina, then married her, and ultimately betrayed her."

– Adrienne Sharp, author of The True Memoirs of Little K, The Sleeping Beauty, and White Swan, Black Swan

“A masterful portrait of the woman who served as muse not only to Balanchine but to some of the pivotal personalities in the development of modern art. The Master's Muse reads like a troubled love letter to art, dance, and creation—and the complexity and betrayal of a life spent in their service.”

– Slate.com

Varley O’Connor’s dynamic and remarkable portrait of Tanaquil “Tanny” Le Clercq investigates the cost of being a muse. O’Connor seems to channel Tanny, writing into her life rather than over it. [Her] graceful and dense prose, which often mirrors the intricacies of dance itself, traps a reader in Tanny’s mind as she herself was trapped when her body failed her. O’Connor has opened a portal into the elusive world of dance and the mind of an artist.

– Raintaxi.com

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