I can’t remember now if it was Litlove or Rohan who caused me to put Salley Vickers’s Dancing Backwards on my reading list, but I’m glad one of them did because based on this cover and the premise I never would have accepted a copy of this to review, and it would have been my loss. The cover and description led me to think this would be a predictable shipboard romance novel, albeit one focused on an older woman and (perhaps?) a younger man. Not necessarily a bad book, but not a very interesting one. As it turns out, Dancing Backwards isn’t a romance at all, and it’s much more interesting than I would have expected.
The story begins with recently widowed Violet Heatherington boarding a ship to travel across the Atlantic to visit her old friend Edwin who lives in New York. During the journey, Vi mixes with others on board the ship, takes a few dance lessons, and spends a lot of time reminiscing about her long-ago friendship with Edwin and the circumstances that led to her first and then her second marriage.
The title of the novel is a reference to the saying that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only “backwards and in high heels.” Vickers uses dance as a metaphor for the way Vi has lived her life. Early in the book, Renato, her steward, tells her that she must go dancing, that she’d be a natural, but she demurs, citing her lack of experience. When she finally does go, she proves to be just fine. She can follow. As she looks back on her life, it becomes apparent to the reader that she’s a natural at following. Just about everything she does, from choosing activities on the ship to deciding on a career, is done at someone else’s urging:
Of the many tyrannies which constrain us, Vi thought, it is extraordinary how pervasive are those that persuade us to follow other people’s notions of what we want rather than our own desires. It was easier to give in to Renato than to resist. But that had been her life’s strategy.
In matters such as going to a dance lesson, giving in is not a big deal, but Vi has given in to the point where she ended up in a disastrous marriage that she knew was doomed before it began. It’s just that she let others’ voices take precedence over her own. Living life in this way is far more difficult in the long run than a more assertive or even selfish approach would be. Dancing backward, being the follower—as women often have been expected to do—is dangerous!
Vi’s suggestibility and resultant way of living raises questions about identity and influence and how we become who we are. One of Violet’s friends convinced her that she was a gifted poet before she’d even thought to write poetry, and she went on to be published and win prizes. Did he see something that was already there, or did his suggestion cause her to become what he suggested? Another characters studied Vodun and kept a purse-like object that he said could contain a person’s soul; it’s not clear what that means to him or to Violet, but it feels sinister. Influence can go either way.
This is a novel without a lot in the way of plot. Plenty of things happen, but they’re minor things, especially in the present-day storyline. A subplot involving a lost ring struck me as a silly way of adding conflict that never quite panned out. On reflection, however, I think we’re meant to see something in that story about people’s perceptions and expectations of one another.
I’m intrigued by the fact that late on the boat trip, the dances become more free-form and less reliant on partners. Does this represent some push toward independence on Vi’s part? I’m not sure the final events of the novel bear that out, but it’s something to consider. I also wonder if there’s something more in the depictions of other people on the ship with Violet. Are their actions toward her governed by the way she sees them? How does the idea of suggestibility affect our perceptions of others, and how do those perceptions affect the way people treat us? It’s entirely possible I’m overanalyzing, and I’m not sure this is the kind of book that stands up to this degree of scrutiny. But the skillful attention to Vi’s character makes me wonder. Surely the other characters aren’t just window dressing.
At any rate, this is a book that reads like light fiction but has some uncomfortable issues at its heart. I could see it fitting in quite nicely among the Persephone and Virago books so many of my blogging friends enjoy. It was a pleasure to read.