Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Master's Muse includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Varley O'Connor. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
It is often said, behind every great man, there is a great woman. In the case of celebrated and esteemed choreographer George Balanchine, there were several. The Master’s Muse is the spectacular reimagining of his fifth and final wife, Tanaquil Le Clercq. At just twenty-seven years old, Tanny’s brilliant career as a ballerina was ended and her entire world shattered when she contracted polio. She lost her ability to dance, and with that, feared the loss of her husband’s affection and desire. Varley O’Connor masterfully enters the mind of Tanny and delivers a first person perspective on life as a ballerina, polio victim, and muse to one of ballet’s most famous figures of the twentieth century.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The Master’s Muse is broken up into three parts: “polio,” “Being Russian,” and “The Body.” Discuss the significance of these three part titles as they relate to the story, along with the quotes that open each one.
2. In the prologue, Tanaquil reflects on her marriage to George: “I didn’t realize to what extent dance, for George, was love.” (p. 8) How does this prove true throughout the rest of their story? How does their inability to dance or collaborate together after Tanny contracts polio affects their relationship?
3. When the polio paralyzes Tanny’s legs, it puts an end to her career as a ballerina and completely changes her life. She recognizes her loss, thinking: “my legs that were once everything . . . My legs: my weapons, my wings.” (p. 34) What do you consider your weapons or wings? What would be most difficult to have taken away from you?
4. Compare Tanny’s relationships with George, Jerry, and Carl. How does she love each of them and how does each of these men affect her life—for better or worse?
5. At a few different points in the narrative, Tanny reflects on the different versions of herself. On page 8, she says that the events of the 1956 tour “created a ‘me’ to posterity that superseded anything I had been before—and the ‘me’ inside of what happened.” Later, she discusses about waking up and remembering she has polio, at which point she “would have to decide all over again to get up and be who I was now” (p. 107). How do you interpret her use of “me”? Have you ever felt you’ve become a new or different “you”?
6. After Tanny decides not to take her own life, she believes that George really would have helped her to end it if she wanted to. Do you agree? Do you think he ever even got the pills? Why or why not?
7. Tanny’s father tells her that he thinks “All men should have children. It’s an unrecorded fact that men need to have children more than women do.” (p. 161) Discuss the merit of this statement—do you agree? How would you apply this concept to the characters in The Master’s Muse? To people you know?
8. Discuss Tanny’s different reactions to George’s infatuation with other women. How do her feelings about Diana differ from the way she feels about Suzanne? Why do you think she’s able to be cordial with Suzanne and be friends with Diana?
9. Why do YOU think George doesn’t want to get divorced when Tanny first asks him to leave, and then later goes behind her back in Mexico? Why do you think George and Tanny stayed together as long as they did?
10. George said, “Energy’s endless . . . You think there isn’t anymore, and then there is.” (p. 210) How does the idea of resurgent energy recur as a theme throughout the book? How does it apply to George and Tanny’s relationship?
11. When visiting George in the hospital, Tanny confides in him that she should have married Carl because it was what he wanted; it was something she could have done for him. Is that enough of a reason to marry someone? Why do you think she was resistant to the idea when Carl first brought it up?
12. Who do you think is the master’s muse? Is it Tanny? What do you take away from this title having now read the book?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Many of the characters in The Master’s Muse really existed. Learn more about them by picking up one of George Balanchine’s biographies, such as All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine by Terry Teachout, George Balanchine: The Ballet Maker by Robert Gottlieb, or Balanchine: A Biography by Bernard Taper.
2. Tanny developed a passion for cooking, and even put together The Ballet Cookbook, which was published in 1966. Copies may be hard to find these days, but that shouldn’t stop you from incorporating some Russian treats into your book club discussion. Choose from dozens of authentic and delicious looking recipes at www.ruscuisine.com.
3. Luckily, the polio vaccine has made cases today almost nonexistent. To get a better understanding of the virus and its history, visit www.historyofvaccines.org/content/timelines/polio.
4. Check out YouTube to see an actual recording of Tanaquil Le Clercq dancing Afternoon of a Faun with Jacques d’Amboise at www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmnnhq_ZXlw. How did watching this video affect your idea of who Tanny was and your overall reading of The Master’s Muse?
A Conversation with Varley O’Connor
While a very different book, your last novel, The Cure, is also about the destructiveness of polio. What interests you about the topic and made you want to write about it in two separate books?
My father contracted polio as a child, when he was three. His entire childhood was about braces and surgeries and, finally, beginning to walk again. But the journey shaped his personality. His polio made me curious about how illness and disability determines who people become, in positive as well as negative ways. My father had a tremendous power of will, as Tanny does.
What attracted you to Tanaquil Le Clercq as a narrator for a novel?
She became a huge international star, married one of the most famous men of her time, and then she was suddenly crippled. I thought readers would be fascinated to hear what it was like to live a life of such extremes. I certainly was as I delved into research, especially interviews she gave and stories people told about her.
Describe the experience of creating a work of fiction about real people. What were the challenges and how was it different than the experience of writing any of your other novels?
I had to do a lot of research, but I like research. What was hardest was digesting the research. In a novel, you don’t want the research to stick out. So I’d read my facts over and over, pretty much memorizing them. That way, the facts came through organically in the story. Or I hope they do.
Did you ever consider writing from someone else’s perspective or alternating perspectives for The Master’s Muse? Why or why not?
I never thought of using any perspective other than Tanny’s. She was the person who originally drew me to the story, and I learned that she never wrote a memoir. So I wanted this to be her story. I tried to write the book of her life she never wrote.
How did you go about your research for this novel? Are there any parts of The Master’s Muse that aren’t true, or required more creativity and imagination than research?
Because there was no memoir or biography about Tanny, the facts were scattered over many resources. It was quite a job connecting the dots! That’s where my imagination came in. So much is written about Balanchine that recreating what their relationship must have been like wasn’t that difficult. Harder were the parts in the novel when Tanny is alone. Carl, for instance, is an invented character.
Was there ever a time in the course of writing this book that you wished you could change the facts? Did you find that history or truth ever got in the way of good storytelling?
I became so fond of my main characters that I wished Tanny and George would have gotten back together. But in terms of storytelling, the fact that they didn’t get back together probably makes a better story. It’s more complicated that way, there’s more suspense, and it challenged my inventiveness as a writer. I had to find ways to make the facts work dramatically.
How did you decide where to begin and end Tanny’s story?
I knew very early in the process where it would begin and end. For me, the polio was a sort of refining fire for both Le Clercq and Balanchine. It reshaped them in many ways, as individuals and as a couple. And it had a huge impact on Balanchine’s work. So I knew I’d start with the polio, that great terrible challenge. As for the end, I saw Balanchine’s final illness as in some ways parallel to Le Clercq’s polio. He helped her through her illness, and she helped him through his.
What kind of ending might you have given George and Tanny if you could have written their real story?
I have no idea. It took such belief and commitment to write the book as it is, that at this point I can’t imagine it happening any other way.
What are you working on next? Do you have any new projects coming up?
I’ve started research on a new novel. It’s again based on a true story. There are two main characters, a young girl and a woman. It also involves illness and fame. And, at least for the woman character in the story, it is also driven by romantic passion.
If you could ask Tanaquil Le Clercq one question, what would it be?
I hope she would like the novel. Perhaps that’s what I’d ask her. I did everything in my power to write a book true to her essence and her world.