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Sarah Bird: 'The Flamenco Academy'

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Sarah Bird: 'The Flamenco Academy'

Arts & Life

Sarah Bird: 'The Flamenco Academy'

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. The pulse and passion of flamenco takes center stage in Sarah Bird's latest novel, The Flamenco Academy. It's a tale of love and longing and transformation, one that the gypsies who created that dance formed centuries ago would surely find familiar. Book critic Veronique de Turenne has this review.

Ms. VERONIQUE DE TURENNE (Book critic): With her pale skin, pale hair and the clinched fist of her last name, Cyndi Rae Hrncir couldn't be further from flamenco's fiery ideal. She's 17, a sheltered math nerd who moves from small town Texas to Albuquerque. Her father dies of cancer, her mother goes nuts, and Cyndi Rae - now utterly alone - leads us into the frenzied heart of the flamenco academy.

Author Sarah Bird has done her research, and everything from folklore to footwork are on display here. It's against this backdrop that lonely Cyndi Rae falls obsessively in love with Tomas Montenegro. He's a gorgeous guitarist, who's physical beauty is exceeded only - and just barely - by his artistry.

For Rae - she drops the Cyndi after a few chapters - the difference between Tomas and ordinary boys is a revelation. Where they were pink and embryonic, he was brown and fully formed, Bird tells us. His black hair, brows, the black lashes shadowing his cheeks had an etched certainty missing in the tentative pastel fuzziness of the boys I knew.

Rae shares a romantic night with Tomas, and her twin obsessions are born. She's got to have him. And in order to snare him, she'll transform herself into the impossible: a blond, blue-eyed flamenca of Czech descent. Wasting no time, she enrolls in The Flamenco Academy.

It's obvious Bird loves New Mexico and the dance form she's placed at the heart of her book. There's something of Rae's obsessive-compulsive nature in the way Bird revisits and retells parts of her story, always describing flamenco at fever pitch. It's as though she can't trust herself to explain the art and grace and fire of it, and is pretty sure we'll never understand.

Everything is seen at eye-level, moment by moment as it happens to Rae, a linear telling that robs the book of dramatic rhythm. All the more frustrating, then, when Bird sets aside the baroque language that burdens her story and zings us with observations so wry and right, we snap back to attention. Here she is describing an aging flamenco guitarist.

The crowd of hard-core aficionados pounded their palms together for Diego. Nearly 80, he padded slowly to the straight-back chair where his instrument waited. His double-knit pants, pulled up a little too high, cradled the low slung lobes of his old-man's buttocks. He took his pants, hiking them up still farther, exposing garters holding up black socks.

It's moments like these that lead you to the heart of the tale, where at last, Rae and Tomas unite and their destiny plays out. The central tenet of flamenco is give me the truth. And in the climax of The Flamenco Academy, Bird finally obeys.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: The book is Sarah Bird's The Flamenco Academy. Our reviewer is Los Angeles writer Veronique de Turenne. For more summertime reading, just go to NPR.org.

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