MAY 10, 2014
SOME BOOKS make us wild to find out what happens next. We secret them behind geometry textbooks. We ignore our loved ones just to keep reading. We cross busy streets with our eyes still on the page. These are not usually the “vegetables” of literature — books that are thematically intricate, that raise complicated issues and make us think. Brandy Colbert’s Pointe, however, is an exception; it is the rare novel that is both nourishing and impossible to put down.
Pointe tells the story of Theo, a junior in high school, a ballerina, and a recovering anorexic. The abduction of her best friend, Donovan, four years earlier has left her scarred and traumatized, but the book begins with its protagonist apparently on the mend. A gifted dancer and clever student, Theo has a bright future. She has supportive parents, and is developing an exciting flirtation with Hosea, the handsome new accompanist for her ballet class. Once Donovan is rescued from his abductor, however, Theo is forced to confront the horror of his experience, the extent of the damage done, and what may be her own possible complicity in the kidnapping.
Colbert’s portrait of high school is one of the most authentic I’ve read, and it’s impossible not to get caught up in the details of Theo’s life. Readers will be swept along, hungering for more of Theo’s story, but Colbert isn’t quick to satisfy that hunger. We discover that Theo and Donovan were the only two people of color in a predominantly white school; they were immediately close but something happened between them just before Donovan’s abduction that drastically changed their friendship. Colbert keeps her cards close, sparingly dealing out clues in gorgeously wrought prose and leading us along with expert pacing and stunning realism.
Theo is written with such strength of narrative voice that readers will trust her implicitly even when we can sense that she isn’t telling us everything. Time and again Theo contradicts herself. She tells us food is no longer an issue but she agonizes over a meager portion of lentils. She claims she’s fine with Donovan’s return, which we are tempted to believe, until we watch her slowly unravel. She isn’t a willfully unreliable narrator; she just lives in confident denial.
As the story goes on, Theo’s interpretation of reality seems less and less accurate, and yet, she has such force of character that we want to keep believing her. We want so much to be on her side, that it takes significant effort to break rank with her. When her friends express concern over her obviously disordered eating, she rolls her eyes at them. Even though we know her friends are right, hanging out with Theo is so much fun, it’s tempting to roll our eyes along with her.
Colbert expertly navigates this disconnect between the narrator’s patently flawed perception and reality, actively encouraging the sense that there is more to Theo’s story than we are initially led to believe. It often feels as if Theo is gathering together the pieces of a puzzle and asking us to solve it for her — to voice the story that she herself cannot. She leaves it up to the reader to see that a spoonful of lentils is not enough to sustain a competitive ballerina, that no matter what she says, she is starving herself. It is up to us to decide that all is not as it seems with this witty and confident girl. Colbert builds suspense with the question of what must have happened to Theo four years prior — whatever it was, this something still infects her present, coloring her storytelling and her decision-making, forcing her to avoid confronting what she may fear most.
Pointe works on multiple levels — as a fascinating character study, as a meditation on love, both romantic and platonic, and as a classic coming-of-age story. It will resonate with many different kinds of readers for many different reasons.
For me, though, the heart of the book lies in its exploration of adolescent sexuality —specifically, it illuminates how we fixate on the sexual vulnerability of our young people and simultaneously ignore it. Theo does not fit into preconceived notions of who a victim might be and how she might look. She is well-to-do, loved by attentive parents, smart, funny, and gifted. She does not seem like easy prey. And yet over the course of the book, as we slowly learn the horrifying truth of what happened to her as a child, we see that none of these qualities protected her. She was manipulated and emotionally and physically abused despite her precocious wisdom and sophisticated sense of discernment.
One of the most beautiful scenes in the book occurs when, in a moment of shared confidence, Theo tells her ballet rival Ruthie the truth about her past. Ruthie, shocked by what she’s heard, momentarily sets their rivalry aside and says the words Theo herself has been unable to speak. For Theo’s truth to be verbalized, it must be externalized and voiced by another. This is particularly poignant given Theo’s race and age. It’s no secret that young women of color are among the least protected members of our society; they are especially at risk of predation.
Ruthie has her own issues — a difficult home life and serious problems with anger. And yet, it is this troubled girl who articulates the brutality of Theo’s past. Until her conversation with Ruthie, Theo hadn’t realized the extent of the damage. It was just that no one else had noticed either.
After her confession, Theo says:
‘You can’t tell, Ruthie. You can’t. You can’t tell. You can’t say anything.’ I repeat this over and over until she’s standing in front of me, until Ruthie Pathman’s arms are wrapped tight around me in an empty parking lot of a train station. […]
‘I won’t say anything.’ She pulls back to look at me, to look dead in my eyes as she says this, and I believe her.
Perhaps I’m being foolish. I have to believe that there is someone I can trust.
Pointe argues that we expect adolescent girls to protect themselves without according them the agency and tools they need and deserve. Until we pay more attention, they will have to depend on each other for support.
Colbert doesn’t preach. She tells her story and lets the reader find his or her own meaning in it. However, she presents such a rich tapestry and such relatable characters that a reader would be hard-pressed to reach the end and not be moved by this novel. Pointe is a startlingly beautiful novel, singular in its voice and vision, and executed with unabashed honesty. It’s also a deeply important and poignant book, and one I very much wish I’d written.