DANCING BACKWARDS by Salley Vickers

Book Quote:

“Can I tempt you to a foxtrot, Mrs. Hetherington?”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage (AUG 5, 2010)

There’s a good chance that the title of Salley Vickers’ book Dancing Backwards refers to a quote once made about Ginger Rogers: “Remember Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels.” The quote implies that females have a harder role in life, and that certainly fits widow Violet Hetherington–a talented woman who gave up writing poetry years earlier.

Dancing Backwards begins with Violet, whose much-older husband Ted died about a year earlier, about to board a cruise ship from Britain to New York. She’s been encouraged to take the cruise by her two grown sons, and once in New York, she plans to reunite with Edwin, an old friend from university days. The early parts of the novel are very strong as Vickers creates an energetic cast of characters–a motley assortment of passengers–including young marrieds, unhappily married couples, mis-matched couples and some overly enthusiastic crew members.

Violet, as one of the few single passengers, feels somewhat out of place. While she’d be quite content to be left alone to think in peace, everyone seems determined that she should have a good time. Renato, her room steward, “a ballroom dance devotee” constantly hustles her up on deck, and she finds herself drifting towards dance lessons simply to pacify the concerns that she might be lonely or bored. Evenings spent with her fellow diners are a delicate blend of polite conversation mingled with the desire to avoid too much intimacy.

Life on a cruise ship is portrayed somewhat negatively. The passengers are “managed” more than anything else, and the descriptions of cruise life and the passengers desire to extract their ‘money’s worth’ are some of the best in the book:

“She was not so sure when, a little later, washed and dressed, she went down to breakfast. A kind of frenzy had set in. Cereals of all kinds were available: corn flakes, bran flakes, Rice Krispies, Shredded Wheat, Weetabix, Coco Pops, Fru-grains, muesli, together with stewed prunes, apricots, green figs, sliced cheeses, ham, salami, smoked salmon, as well as bacon, sausage, black pudding, kippers, haddock, eggs cooked to order, mushrooms, tomatoes, pancakes, porridge, waffles and every conceivable variety of bread, muffins and toast. Besides there were jams, honey marmalade, Marmite and peanut butter (with a prominent health and safety warning about possible allergies). Lest this were not enough there were plates of fresh pineapple, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, and piles of apples, pears, oranges, grapes, strawberries, blueberries, mango, kiwi fruit, guava, passion fruit and bunches of bananas.

Although the food was continually being replenished by teams of attentive waiting staff (and no passenger was left from 5 a.m. , ‘Dawn Snack’, till midnight, ‘Bedtime cookies and cocoa’, for more than fifteen minutes without ready supplies), a fever of impatience had overtaken the line of passengers as Vi queued for a bowl of muesli.”

As the cruise ship sails towards New York, Violet is alone with her memories, and her past life gradually and gently unfolds–university days, her friendship with fellow poet Edwin, and two marriages. In between Violet’s moments of reminiscence, she establishes a few tentative relationships with fellow passengers and also with crew members. Through these cruise ship relationships, it becomes clear that Violet’s past and her present are connected. Weakness and a lack of inner certainty led to Violet making some horrible mistakes in her youth, and she still has a tendency to want to please everyone–even though this may come at a personal cost. The idea that people don’t fundamentally change–although they may mature–is also seen through Violet’s relationship with her adventurous, irrepressible friend Annie.

Dancing Backwards also has its weak moments. There’s a very silly passage about Violet having “pirate blood” in her veins, and another paragraph about crew member Boris whose family owned “vast tracks of woodlands where wolves had loped. In the family annals it was alleged that on nights when the moon was full an ancestor of Boris’s had loped alongside the wolves.” At that point, I wondered if Boris was going to turn into a werewolf–what with all the loping around and whatnot. These sorts of inclusions drag the book over to romantic territory, and there’s the sense that the novel is either trying very hard to be something it isn’t or that it could be better. Not without its charming moments and saved from being too saccharine by Violet’s sometimes bitter memories, Dancing Backwards will no doubt appeal to those readers who want a little escapism laced with hope and kindness.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 2 readers
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1 edition (August 3, 2010)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE:
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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August 5, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Contemporary, United Kingdom

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