What Dis­ap­pears

September 1, 2021

What Dis­ap­pears is a mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional tale that begins in Tsarist Rus­sia in the late 19th cen­tu­ry and ends in Paris with the start of the First World War. One of two iden­ti­cal twins born to a Jew­ish fam­i­ly in dire polit­i­cal and finan­cial straits, Zane­ta is spir­it­ed out of an orphan­age by a Catholic fam­i­ly from France. The oth­er twin, Sonya — raised to believe her sis­ter died at birth — has her life upend­ed by the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev. They come face to face as 29-year-old iden­ti­cal strangers in the door­way of Anna Pavlova’s dress­ing-room when both get jobs in Paris with Sergei Diaghilev’s Bal­lets Russ­es. The result­ing com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship expos­es their dark­est secrets and dear­est hopes, affect­ing not only their lives but also the lives and fates of Sonya’s three daugh­ters. Peo­pled by the great­est dancers, writ­ers, artists, design­ers and trend­set­ters of the Belle Époque, What Dis­ap­pears explores the ways in which girls and women dene their iden­ti­ty and search for mean­ing in a world that tries at every turn to hold them back.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Bar­bara Quick

1. How is the his­tor­i­cal truth inter­wo­ven with what we might call the emo­tion­al truth” in What Dis­ap­pears?

2. What are some of the truths” we find in this nov­el that wouldn’t be con­tained in a straight-on book of history?

3. How has this nov­el changed your per­cep­tions about the world of pro­fes­sion­al bal­let, the time peri­od of the Belle Époque, and/​or the dif­fi­cul­ties faced by women and girls who lived then?

4. Sonya and her sis­ter Jean­nette are iden­ti­cal twins raised apart. But they can also be seen, metaphor­i­cal­ly, as very dif­fer­ent aspects of a sin­gle per­son, such that we all have more than one self inside us. Did you iden­ti­fy more with one twin than the oth­er? Do you think we all have a good” self and a bad” self inside us?

5. As depict­ed in this nov­el, the dancers of the Bal­lets Russ­es in the ear­ly 1900s felt the same aches, had the same pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with their pointe shoes, their warm-up, their per­for­mance rou­tine, their pro­fes­sion­al ambi­tions and their inse­cu­ri­ties as dancers today. Do you think this is par­tic­u­lar­ly true for bal­let — or are all peo­ple in the arts, across time, faced with sim­i­lar challenges?

6. Are there char­ac­ters in the nov­el who remind you of peo­ple you’ve known or loved or depend­ed on? Are there char­ac­ters in the nov­el who remind you of yourself?

7. The con­cept of cos­tum­ing in bal­let and high fash­ion is an under­ly­ing theme in What Dis­ap­pears: a dancer’s cos­tume is a way of becom­ing a dif­fer­ent ver­sion of her­self while hid­ing an inner part of her­self from view. What mean­ing does becom­ing anoth­er self” have for each of the twins? How does each of them strive to keep her inmost self hid­den from the world? What effect, if any, do you think their time in the orphan­age had on Sonya and Jean­nette? Can you spec­u­late on the under­ly­ing role that shame has for each of them?

8. Both the twins acknowl­edge har­bor­ing a dark­ness inside them­selves. Sonya says to Jean­nette: I was only won­der­ing whether per­haps you also have a very dark place inside you, like I do. A place of hope­less­ness that’s always there, even when you’re hap­py – always wait­ing for your return.” Are there ways in which you iden­ti­fy with this inner sense of dark­ness or hope­less­ness? How do you think such feel­ings are fueled by trau­ma, either per­son­al or his­tor­i­cal (i.e., such as by our col­lec­tive mem­o­ry of the Holocaust)?

9. Jean­nette dreams of find­ing redemp­tion” through suc­cess as a bal­le­ri­na. Olga, sim­i­lar­ly, express­es a desire for vin­di­ca­tion” through achiev­ing some­thing great in the world. Even though these two char­ac­ters are adver­saries in the nov­el, they’re alike in this way. What is it about suc­cess that seems to car­ry with it the pos­si­bil­i­ty of redemp­tion for so many ambi­tious people?

10. How does tox­ic mas­culin­i­ty and male enti­tle­ment play out in the nov­el? What do you think has changed in male-female pow­er rela­tion­ships since the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry? Are there some things in the news today — or in your own life — that make it seem as though the same or sim­i­lar pow­er dynam­ics are still at play?

11. Paul Poiret’s treat­ment of the twins is exe­crable! At every turn, he’s moti­vat­ed by his own self­ish needs, his own pro­fes­sion­al ambi­tions and his own sex­u­al desires. And yet he’s also capa­ble of kind­ness, insight and even com­pas­sion. He’s an inno­v­a­tive and humane employ­er for his time. He’s won­der­ful to the 12-year-old work­ing-class Parisian girls he trains for lucra­tive design careers. He sends and pays for the doc­tor who saves Olga’s life. What do you think of Paul Poiret? Is he sim­ply a mon­ster? To what extent is the bad behav­ior of bril­liant peo­ple for­giv­able? Is their gift to cul­ture and soci­ety a fair price for the destruc­tion they leave in their wake? Is it more impor­tant to be a good per­son — or a great artist?

12. What are your reac­tions to Sonya’s attempt to explain to her sis­ter what it means to be Jewish?