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Flight of the Swan

Flight of the Swan

4.0 2
by Rosario Ferré

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The story of a prima ballerina and her acolyte, set in Puerto Rico in 1917.

Flight of the Swan is the compelling story of a world-famous Russian prima ballerina who finds herself stranded on a Caribbean island in 1917, due to political upheavals in her own country. This charming jeu d'esprit explores the complexities of love and betrayal, as the loyal


The story of a prima ballerina and her acolyte, set in Puerto Rico in 1917.

Flight of the Swan is the compelling story of a world-famous Russian prima ballerina who finds herself stranded on a Caribbean island in 1917, due to political upheavals in her own country. This charming jeu d'esprit explores the complexities of love and betrayal, as the loyal servant Masha gradually comes to recognize that in spite of what she sees as Madame's propensity to be both pretentious and vain, the ballerina is prepared to sacrifice everything for her art. Madame's unfaltering commitment to dance above all else -- and her demand of nothing less from her disciples -- forces Masha to question what choices she herself is willing to make when it comes to her own loves, ideals, and relationships.

Humorous, engaging, and coyly revealing, Flight of the Swan traces the decisions made by Masha, Madame, and other members of the troupe during their enforced three-month stay in Puerto Rico, and in doing so raises the question of where true happiness lies.

Editorial Reviews

[A] wonderfully original novel...this engaging story...is sure to solidify the reputation of Ferre, a National Book Award nominee.
Inspired by the life of famed dancer Anna Pavlova, this imaginative novel is an account of an aging prima ballerina, Niura Federovsky, who flees her homeland during the outbreak of the Russian Revolution and lands on the equally "strife-torn" island of Puerto Rico. While stranded without a passport for three months, she falls in love with Diamantino, a local revolutionary who is half her age. Diamantino's comrades take the ballerina on a tour of the island, where she and her troupe perform for the locals. A departure from the family sagas Ferre has previously written, this book reads more like a poorly researched biography than a dramatic work of fiction. Federovsky's loyal servant, Masha, narrates the tale, spending so much time recalling proper street names and historical events that the book's heroine remains emblematic, lacking emotional development. Though its premise is intriguing, the book is so mired in distracting historical details and contrived plot devices that it never really takes off.
—Susan Tekulve

(Excerpted Review)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Love and betrayal, political upheaval, the sacrifices required by dedication to art, and class differences are some of the themes that Ferr (The House on the Lagoon) engages in this imaginatively conceived but strangely lackluster story of a Russian ballet company stranded in Puerto Rico in 1917. Suddenly rendered stateless by the Russian revolution, a touring troupe headed by a famous prima ballerina is forced to remain in San Juan. As narrated by Masha, a member of the company who idolizes Madame and serves as her devoted maid and confidante, the troupe becomes caught up in the nascent Puerto Rican independence movement. Madame, who preaches the sanctity of art to her virginal acolytes, herself falls in love with Diamantino M rquez, a young man half her age, who uses her to further his revolutionary activities. Devastated by Madame's emotional abandonment, Masha attempts to save her mistress from her unwise passion. At first, Ferr 's straightforward narrative style ably conveys a wealth of background information, but soon digressions to explain historical events and long monologues overwhelm the plot. Jarringly, Masha's narration is broken off abruptly and briefly late in the story to introduce another voice. Overall, the novel is bland, devoid of stylistic distinction and sadly lacking in dramatic tension: even the climactic scene describing a tragic brawl during a carnival has little suspense. Despite Ferr 's laudable intentions to encapsulate a period of Puerto Rican history by fictionalizing some events in the life of Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, this novel falls short of her previous work. (June) Forecast: A highly successful novelist in Puerto Rico, Ferr began her career writing in Spanish. She now writes directly in English, which may account for the pedestrian quality of this novel. Since there is more gusto in her Spanish prose, which she herself has called "baroque," a Spanish-language version of this novel will undoubtedly find a wider audience. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A Russian prima ballerina is stranded in the Caribbean after the 1917 revolution. From the National Book Award finalist for House on the Lagoon. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Ferré bases her third novel written in English on a real historical incident: ballerina Anna Pavlova's prolonged stay in Puerto Rico (where she was performing) when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917. What a bland, disappointing book, almost totally devoid of the swirling momentum and vivid specificity that made Ferré's generational sagas The House on the Lagoon (1995) and Eccentric Neighborhoods (1998) so memorable. Not that "Madame" (as she's addressed by her former student and all-purpose handmaiden Masha, who narrates) isn't a charismatic and appealing figure: a woman of pronounced populist sentiments despite the image projected by her trademark " . . . solo The Dying Swan . . . [as] the personification of the aristocrats' agony." The problems are created by the heavy weight of exposition that clogs the first hundred pages, and by imperfectly made connections between Pavlova's love affair with (the much younger) revolutionary dilettante Diamantino Marquez ("For the first time Madame was insisting that Love was more important than Art," Masha complains), and an awkward subplot in which Diamantino's arranged marriage to an heiress is threatened by the presence of his rival, her father's illegitimate son. The inflamed passions and colorful set pieces (including climactic doings at the Juan Ponce De Lémon Carnival) do help, but can't overcome a superfluity of undigested research, which frequently takes the form of leaden references to the ballerina's contemporaries (Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Isadora Duncan, et al), and largely pointless cameo appearances by such celebrities as "Lone Eagle" American pilot Daniel Dearborn (in other words, Charles Lindbergh).One gets the impression that Ferré undertook this novel without having decided how Anna Pavlova, the Russian Revolution, the class struggle in Puerto Rico, and a woman's right to express herself artistically and sexually (a constant undercurrent theme) were logically—much less fictionally—related. Ferré at her best (as in Eccentric Neighborhoods) can be a soaring, marvelous writer. But Flight of the Swan never gets off the ground.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
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5.40(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt

Very few people know that Madame, the famous Russian ballerina, visited our island from April to September 1917. But my husband, Juan Anduce, and I remembered the time vividly. A few weeks ago, on April 23, 1932, Madame lay dying in an obscure hotel in Amsterdam, asking for her swan costume. "Play the last measure softly," she whispered to the friends who stood around her, the newspaper headlines quoted. No sooner did she pass away, as she lay still warm in her coffin, than her husband, Victor Dandré, was speeding toward London in search of the marriage license which would assure him of his inheritance: magnificent Ivy House, the mansion surrounded by English gardens and a lake full of swans that once belonged to the painter William Turner and which Madame had purchased with her savings. But I knew he'd never find it. I had destroyed the license, a yellowed parchment written in Cyrillic characters, years before. When I read the article I was overwhelmed with recollections.

I have lived for fifteen years on this island, almost half as long as I lived in Russia. I still love the color red, as all Russians do — russ, after all, means red, something few people realize because it's so obvious — but my Russian heart is beginning to feel I stifled. Incredibly enough, I am growing tired of this island's splendid sun and I miss winter. I would give anything to hear its silence, the stillness that precedes the blizzard, oblivion's snowflakes sifting quietly over my graying head.

When my husband, Juan, was still alive, I had very little time to brood about these things because we had the ballet school and needed to keep our students whirling like tops in the studio we built together in San Juan. It was on the second floor of an old house, with several wrought-iron balconies that opened onto the shady Plaza de Armas.

The academy was Madame's gift to us when she left the island. The training is difficult and very demanding, but its benefits are countless. It not only gives young men and women the opportunity to find jobs as dancers; it also gives them self-respect and a sense of who they are. This was Madame's original wish, and I have done my utmost to put it into effect.

Juan died of a punctured appendix a few months ago and now I live alone. Fortunately, I still have my studio. But when I close the door after the day's last student has left, I plunge into despair. Time erases everything and at the end we are left with nothing. I refuse to become a ghost, a woman without a country, without love and without memories, clutching at my own shadow.

I was thirty-nine years old when I made the decision to leave Madame's company when she traveled to South America. I stayed behind on this island, where I married Juan Anduce, the cobbler hired to repair the dancers' slippers when our ballet company was stranded here during the Great War. For three months we were virtual prisoners; it was a nightmare for all of us. The company's ballerinas wore out dozens of slippers each week and it was impossible to have new ones delivered during our tour because of the German submarines. So Madame had to improvise. That's when Juan Anduce, my future husband, turned up, his green eyes gleaming with the island's lushness and a mischievous smile on his face.

I had met Madame a number of years earlier, in St. Petersburg. I was young and naive, and one day I went to her apartment on Kolomenskaya Street and asked if she would take me on as a private student. Madame had only recently graduated from the Maryinsky Imperial Ballet School and gave classes at home to a small group of girls to supplement her income. It was from this group that she eventually picked the dancers that formed her company, later taking them on short tours on the Continent when war was about to break out in Russia. I joined the flock of young women and accompanied Madame from Russia to the Baltic when I was nineteen. From there we toured many European countries, until one day we sailed to the United States. Many of our relatives in Russia perished during those years, when the White and Red Armies were grappling in mortal combat along a frontier thousands of miles long. Madame saved us from disaster.

Like the rest of the girls in our company, I could have kissed the ground my mistress walked on, dragged myself over a bed of hot coals or needles of ice just to be near her. Those were anguished years, during which we, her followers, spent many sleepless nights worrying about the future. But Madame seemed to glide serenely over the troubled waters of her age: the Russian Revolution, the deaths of millions of her countrymen, even the suffering of this small island which she visited for a short time and to which she could have been indifferent, yet wasn't. It was hard not to revere her if you ever saw her dance; her Odile in Swan Lake and her Aurora in Sleeping Beauty were perfect. But our group held her in special esteem, because she always kept her promises.

Madame and I have known each other from way back. I'm the daughter of a Russian peasant from Minsk who used to beat me with a poplar branch every time he got drunk. I survived thanks to a traveling merchant who went by the house one afternoon and saw him beat me. He punched Mastovsky on the chin and took me to live with his own family in St. Petersburg. He had a brother named Dassily who was a ballet master. He came by the house one day and suggested I take classes with him. Of course I was thrilled to do so. A few years went by and I was perfectly happy, but when I turned sixteen, the merchant raped me and began to beat me. Eventually I went to Madame's apartment and knocked on her door. It was 1897 and Madame had just opened a small ballet school at home, and she took in private pupils. I had a strong, slender body, like the peasants of Belarus usually do. Madame took me in as a maid, and later decided to continue my training in dance.

Like so many of the young dancers who joined Madame's school, I was a fanatical admirer of the ballerina's art. Since I didn't have the training, I wasn't a good enough dancer to be a soloist, so I danced in the chorus. I was tall and lanky then, not fat and sluggish like I am now, wearing muumuus all the time to conceal my size. Because of my rawboned strength, I always danced at the tail end of the line of girls, always near the wings so I could dart off the stage to help Madame change into one of her costumes, or to help the stagehands out. I admit I was never attractive. I looked a bit like a stork, with a long nose and quick-darting eyes which Madame said were always suspiciously assessing my surroundings.

During our free time I washed and ironed Madame's clothes, made her bed, helped dress her, and brushed and tidied up her hair with the silver swan brush and comb one of her admirers had given her, which were always kept in their own leather case. Little by little I became my mistress's confidante.

I knew more about Madame than anyone else in the company: who her biological father was, for example, and why Madame would get so upset if anyone mentioned Matvey Federov, the reserve officer who had married her mother, Lyubovna Fedorovna, and who was killed in the war when Madame was only two years old. I knew all of her secrets: how Madame managed to enter the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, why she married Victor Dandré, a con man and a scoundrel, and why she had stayed with him for so many years.

This knowledge gave me power, and the other dancers respected me for it. I was Madame's right hand, the keeper of her flame. The desire for something we do not have is what makes us struggle to better ourselves, as our priest in Minsk used to say.

Madame admired and respected me for little things — for my patience and fortitude when there was something that had to be done which no one wanted to do, like mend her costumes, rinse her underwear, or scrub the toilets and pick up pubic hairs from the bathroom floor; for my frugality and generosity; even for my country bumpkin ignorance, which made me less dangerous than her sophisticated dancers from St. Petersburg and London, but also more reliable. I knew I represented the best of Russia for Madame: the muzhik's soul.

One day Madame and I made a pact: "I'll take care of you and you take care of me," she said. I naturally agreed. Anyone who knows something about love knows it's the lover, rather than the beloved, who is the stronger, and my love for Madame made me as solid as a rock.

Copyright © 2001 Rosario Ferré

Meet the Author

Rosario Ferré is the author of The House on the Lagoon, a National Book Award finalist, Eccentric Neighborhoods, and Sweet Diamond Dust. She is a frequent lecturer in the United States.

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Flight of the Swan 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the second novel I read by Rosario Ferre. Here Ferre shows again the power of love. Love of a older married woman for a younger man and the love between two women- one the world famous Russian ballerina and the other the second-line ballerina who doubles as her maid, companion, and protector.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I had to read this for Spanish class and had fallen in love with this book. In this book you see the difference between cultures of the old and new worlds. Then to top it off Ferre includes ballet in the story! If you love stories with a little romance and a little bit of history don't walk but run to the store for this wonderful book!