10 January 2014

Review: The Dancing Master by Julie Klassen

Missing Something

A city boy with a passion for dance moves with his mother to a small country town with a powerful moral leader who banned dancing following the tragic death of a young man many years ago. The leader has a rebellious daughter who seeks out the company of inappropriate young men, including the new boy in town, who wants to reintroduce the townsfolk to dance.

Sound familiar? Yes, it’s the plot of Footloose, the 1984 movie starring Kevin Bacon. It’s also the plot of The Dancing Master.

Miss Julia Midwinter lives in Buckleigh Manor, Bedworth, Devon, the only child of Lady Amelia Midwinter, the local matriarch who has forbidden dancing in the village since the death of her beloved brother. Alec Valcourt has moved to the small village of Beaworthy with his sister and widowed mother, hoping to gain employment as a dancing master and fencing instructor.

Parts of The Dancing Master were very good. Klassen’s writing was, as always, excellent, with a use of language and evidence of extensive research. I appreciated the attention to detail. The passages regarding the Bryanites were especially interesting, because it provided a unique insight into another form of worship—the Bryanites were an offshoot of the Wesleyan who worshipped God through song and (ironically) dance. This was an interesting piece of research that could have been developed into a fascinating subplot, but it was almost totally ignored.

Klassen seems to be following the trend of having a greater proportion of the story from the male point of view (as Dee Henderson CID with Unspoken), and I’m still in two minds about the effectiveness of this. It feels as through the story turned from focussing on Julia, to focusing on Alec (and the Allen and Thorne families), which meant we didn’t get to see what Julia was thinking. The result is the romance wasn’t convincing.

I could see why Julia was attracted to Alec: he personified everything her mother despised, the typical good girl/bad boy pairing (except Alec isn’t actually a bad boy, and her mother didn’t actually despise him—it was just a reaction to a situation she faced in her youth). I couldn’t see what attracted Alec to Julia, because she came across as spoiled and self-centred. Yes, I could see that she was that way because her father never loved here (leading into the spiritual application of our heavenly Father loving us despite the actions of our earthly parents, another subplot that would have benefited from more attention).

I had high expectations for The Dancing Master, because I’ve read and enjoyed several of Julie Klassen’s earlier novels. I was expecting to be wowed, in the way I was when I first read Lady of Milkweed Manor
. But I wasn’t. The subplots were more interesting than the main plot, the minor characters (the Allens, the Bryanites and Mr Desmond) were more interesting than the relationship between Alec and Julia and the conflict between Julia and her mother, and there wasn’t enough development in the main characters. And there was no spiritual development in either of the main characters, yet this should be a central feature of a Christian novel.

The Dancing Master was missing that originality of plot and character demonstrated in her earlier novels. I found it slow to read and difficult to finish. I hope her next novel returns to the combination of strong characters and excellent writing that made her earlier novels so good.

Thanks to Bethany House and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review. You can find out more about Julie Klassen at her website.

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