When We Danced on Water/Evan Fallenberg: Reflections

Friday, May 20, 2011

I can't remember the last time I read a book just and only for its story. Call it a professional hazard or supreme nerdism, toss it out there as a liability (I often think it is), but I'm as interested in how a book gets made—its structure and seams, its leaps of technical faith—as I am in the tale being told, the characters that have been brought to the page.

I am interested, for example, in the choices authors make when writing a novel whose primary action and secrets lie in the characters' distance pasts. Here, in these chapters, are the characters remembering. Here, in these, are the many things remembered. What binds the two? How are the now and the then kept equally suspenseful, alive? How does the author negotiate the need to make it all feel as real and messy as life itself is...and also equally cohering? How does he avoid sentimentalism, overt plotting, distracting coincidences while still building a moving, seamless whole?

Those questions are particularly relevant in Evan Fallenberg's new novel, When We Danced on Water, the story of a friendship between Teo, an elderly choreographer, and Vivi, a waitress half his age. Present time is Tel Aviv, and the burgeoning, surprising friendship between Teo and Vivi. Then is Teo's harrowing past as a Jewish dancer during Berlin's worst years, on the one hand, and Vivi's forsaken love affair with a Christian man among the ghosts of Berlin, on the other.  Present time is told in the present tense.  The past is rendered in the past tense. Readers are taken back and forth, between what was and what is, sometimes through long and perhaps not always entirely realistic passages of dialogue/monologue, and sometimes through private reminisce.

I read the book in two sittings; I was, in many ways, intrigued. By Fallenberg's exceptional descriptions of ballet. By Tel Aviv itself, so well rendered. By the Berlin Fallenberg resurrects, not just during Hitler's rule but later, in the aftermath. The research is here. The precision. Fallenberg's clear desire to get the details just right.

Sometimes the language of When We Danced strikes just the right tone, especially in those early present tense scenes, when Teo and Vivi are just commencing their friendship and things are curt and clipped between them. How simple, direct, and telling, for example, are these opening lines:
He said, "Where's Rona."
She said, "Who's Rona."
At other times, though, I felt the language straining, the painting and the pitching notched too grand-scale big. For example:
... he wanted to find another human being who knew how it felt to have the stars cheer him on each time he stepped into ballet slippers, how the planets shook themselves out of their slumber and the galaxies flicked their sparkling tails and the sun shot great bolts of heat and light through the cold universe each time he pirouetted across the floor.
I felt the story itself straining in places, too—the drama at times hinting at melodrama, the characters too conveniently equipped with certain skills or histories, the big gestures (especially on Vivi's part, when she seeks to honor Teo's career) a little too programmed or pre-determined, perhaps not entirely believable.

And yet I read with great interest and great respect for Fallenberg's impulses as a novelist, his clear affection for his characters, his absolute commitment to researching both the history of Berlin and the ineffable qualities of dance. There are, in the end, no perfect novels (or very few of them), but there are novelists who are working from within a respecting, respectful, enormously humane place. Fallenberg is one of them, and I am quite glad that I read When We Danced.


Patricia said...

Wow! Kind of speechless after reading that. There is much to take in. Thanks for sharing, Beth. It sounds like a fascinating book. Bravo to you for being willing to wrestle with it!! It does seem that when writers read, there always seems to be a number of side-missions on our minds.

Beth Kephart said...


Thank you for your comment. I read many books and not all of them make it to this blog, for as a writer I want to be very sensitive to others who have worked long and hard on their books. There is much of merit in this book, and I wanted to find a way to capture that while still honestly conveying some of the questions that rose for me. A difficult balance.

Melissa Sarno said...

Interesting reflections. It's hard to sit down and read a book without analyzing the craft. And, then again, it's hard analyzing the craft. I find I'm better able to understand why I don't like a book then why I do. When I do, I'm really inarticulate about it, "I loooove it. Oh my goodness, loooove, looove."

Anyway, I like books that weave together past and present but it seems like a hard thing to get right. I'm intrigued by the premise of this book and the 'place'.

Beth Kephart said...


I smile, for it really is easier to find what might not be working than it is to know why something moves one; indeed, the books that move me most are the books I am the least inclined to hyperanalyze.

And that backward and forward shift — someday I should write a book on my study of transitions. It's because most of my books involve such shifts that I study them so acutely.

Sarah Laurence said...

Since I started writing YA and women’s fiction, I find myself relaxing when I read literary fiction but not those two easy-read genres. Great review of When We Danced on Water – sounds intriguing.

Good luck at the BEA. Funny story about being next to Jodi Picoult. I’d take that as a compliment. Hopefully some of her fans enjoyed discovering you.

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