Nathan’s Review of Nocturne by Alyssa Wees
Publication Date: 21 February 2023
Genre: Gothic Romance, Historical Fantasy, Fairy Tale Retelling
Pages: 240 pages
Growing up in Chicago’s Little Sicily in the years following the Great War, Grace Dragotta has always wanted to be a ballerina, ever since she first peered through the windows of the Near North Ballet company. So when Grace is orphaned, she chooses the ballet as her home, imagining herself forever ensconced in a transcendent world of light and beauty so different from her poor, immigrant upbringing.
Years later, with the Great Depression in full swing, Grace has become the company’s new prima ballerina—though achieving her long-held dream is not the triumph she once envisioned. Time and familiarity have tarnished that shining vision, and her new position means the loss of her best friend in the world. Then she attracts the attention of the enigmatic Master La Rosa as her personal patron and realizes the world is not as small or constricted as she had come to fear.
Who is her mysterious patron, and what does he want from her? As Grace begins to unlock the Master’s secrets, she discovers that there is beauty in darkness as well as light, finds that true friendship cannot be broken by time or distance, and realizes there may be another way entirely to achieve the transcendence she has always sought.
Review of Nocturne
Take The Phantom of the Opera, smash it into Beauty and the Beast, strain it through a gothic romance, and sprinkle a little bit of Hades and Persephone on top, and you get Nocturne, a lyrical novel that is fascinating in its imagery, but just a bit too plodding in its pacing to achieve its potentially great heights.
Nocturne centers on Grace, a twenty-something ballerina dancing in a failing ballet company in 1930s Chicago. Failing, that is, until Grace becomes the prima donna after receiving the sponsorship of a mysterious patron. It isn’t long until Grace is swept into the patron’s mysterious clutches, and she finds out that not everything as it seems.
What ultimately results is a book that is rather weak in its pacing and plotting, but absolutely nails the atmosphere and overall experience as it careens into its second half. This book won’t work for everyone (especially those who need strongly developed plot or characters) but for people who like to be swept up in the vibes and feelings of a book, definitely consider checking this one out. It is not a five-star read, but it was an experience I personally enjoyed, even with some of its major flaws.
The biggest issue with the book is its plot. Despite being only 250 pages, this book feels just a tad long for the amount of character and plot contained within it. While reading, I could only imagine how much stronger it would be as a novella and I wonder if the author felt the pressure to flesh out the story a bit to reach a “publishable” novel length. The book spins in circles a bit during the first 40% or so until we actually enter the home of the mysterious patron, The Master. This first chunk of the book is not bad by any means, but the world of ballet that Wees introduces to us is too small to take on that much of the book’s initial weight. This is a small story about a single young woman; very few of the other characters are named or meaningfully developed. While it was interesting to explore Grace’s psyche and dive into her emotional core both past and present, there are a lot of repetitive scenes, dialogue, and exposition in the first half of the book. As the reader you can feel the story trying to rip past this part of the plot, to get to the dark, gothic underbelly that the story has to offer, as the author tries to keep the plot caged and contained for far too long.
But if you are able to make it past the first part of Nocturne, you will be rewarded with an absolutely gorgeous look at the intersecting abuses of gender, class, and the arts, and the sense of loss that comes with unnecessary human suffering and death. Wees is a wonder with the pen, and she is able to deftly and cleverly lean into some of the Beauty and the Beast tropes while completely turning them on their head and creating something that is so uncanny (in the best way) because as the reader you feel like to recognize the pieces but the story also feels wholly new and original.
Having said that, however, this is still a Beauty and the Beast retelling, and there are going to be some inherent problems with that. All Beauty and the Beast retellings have a bit (or more than a bit) of a problem with issues of agency and consent of the “Belle” figure. Wees is able to subvert some of that by having Grace take a more active role in her own story (and by quickly moving through the “girl enslaved by the Beast” part of the plot), but there are still some uncomfortable elements of the romance part of the book. If you are a reader who is immediately turned off by the Beauty and the Beast romance premise, then I would not even bother with this book. No matter what, I did think the romance angle was relatively weak because of some of the issues of having the dark, brooding, mysterious love interest.
At the end of the day, the plot (including the romance) is not the main attraction for Nocturne. There are twists and turns in the second half of the story, but don’t be surprised if you see them coming from a mile away. Luckily, the story doesn’t overly rely on these twists. While some readers might be disappointed that The Master is not too much more than he appears (it is fairly obvious after he is introduced who he really is), the book is really a more thematic examination of the arts, power, classism, and the human experience of loss and mourning. Wees doesn’t revel in pulling the rug out from under the reader, but instead carefully examines the human condition in all its ills and foibles. As Grace gets pulled in deeper and deeper by her new mysterious patron, the plot really becomes secondary to the whirling atmosphere.
And this ultimately what Wees does best, and what makes her an author that I will be keeping an eye on moving forward. While the front half of the book can be a bit bland, the second half of the book becomes a gothic fever dream. As the reader I was transported in the Master’s mysterious home full of magical mirrors, mysterious rooms, and ultimately a whole new world to explore. Wees recreates in the reader the sense of instability, foreignness, and weightlessness that Grace feels as she explores her new surroundings. Sometimes confusing but never boring, the second half of the book is a lush fantasy setting reminiscent of the darkest of fairy tales. As the plot finally accelerates as it moves towards its conclusion, the reader continues to be kept off-kilter and Wees only puts us on our feet again in the final concluding moments.
Ultimately this book is more of a vibe than a “traditional” plot experience. This is what makes the first half relatively weak (where the vibes are bland) but what ultimately builds to a strong, atmospheric, and transportive second half.
Concluding Thoughts: A lush and lyrical Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast, and Hades/Persephone mashup, Nocturne tells the story of a young ballerina who gets swept up into a dark and gothic world by a mysterious patron. While a plodding first half keeps this book from being an all-time favorite, the gothic atmosphere and beautiful prose in the second half make up for it. Readers who like to get swept up in the vibes of the book and don’t mind a thin plot and some weak character arcs (outside of the main character, Grace) will find a lot to love here. This is not an all-time great book, but it does set up the author as one to keep an eye on in the future.