Book Review: The Other Side of Perfect

Author: Mariko Turk
Publisher: Allen and Unwin (2021)
Genre: Contemporary fiction (for a YA readership)

“Alina Keeler was destined to dance, but one terrifying fall shatters her leg – and her dreams of a ballet career along with it. After a summer spent healing (translation: eating vast amounts of Cool Ranch Doritos and bingeing ballet videos on YouTube), she must trade her preprofessional dance classes for normal high school, where she reluctantly joins the musical…  But the stage does offer more than she expected – namely her castmate Jude. He’s annoyingly attractive, ridiculously optimistic and, worst of all, Alina just might be falling for him.”

Drawing of an Asian girl with her long hair in a ponytail. Only the top half of her body is visible. She has one arm extended in front of her and one leg extended behind in a ballet pose.
Image source
ID: Drawing of an Asian girl with her long hair in a ponytail. Only the top half of her body is visible. She has one arm extended in front of her and one leg extended behind in a ballet pose.

I really liked The Other Side of Perfect for a number of reasons. The exploration of racism in ballet, and Alina’s gradual understanding of it, was a revelation for me. The romantic subplot with Jude was adorable and well-paced, and Alina’s grief over her injury and subsequent emotional dysregulation and behaviour made her feel real and relatable.

Not all readers would be familiar with ballet, racism, or the racism involved in ballet, and Mariko Turk clearly considered this. Alina’s sister, Josie, was a vehicle by which Turk introduced Alina – and the reader – to the problematic nature of ballet on an individual and systemic level. Similarly, Alina’s classmates exemplified the deliberate cruelty that some white people still believe is acceptable towards marginalized groups. Turk also highlighted the nuances of this racism through Alina’s realization that her old teacher, Kira, treated her differently to her best friend Colleen, a black woman. Josie spoke scathingly of Alina’s favourite ballets as “music written by white men who’ve been dead for literally a hundred years,” and pointed out that Alina was always given the same parts because she was Asian. As Alina reflected on this, she – and her views – developed. Her shifting understanding of ballet needed to happen gradually, as did her relationship with Jude.      

Alina’s relationship with Jude developed slowly, as she needed to learn how to ride the waves of her emotions before she could contemplate such vulnerability. Jude complemented Alina with his laidback attitude and willingness to discuss the hard things. In a particularly powerful scene, he offered her some advice for living with sadness, likening it to a puppy. Jude acknowledged, as many readers would understand, “I always feel better after I let myself be sad. Like if the sadness has a while to run around and stretch its legs, it’s not so restless.”   

Friendship was foundational to Alina’s ability to move forward. Colleen and Margot seemed to me like opposites of one another, thereby symbolizing the two parts of Alina’s life: before the accident and after. However, neither of them gave up on her, even when her pain drove her to ignore Colleen’s messages for several months and lash out at Margot. Their willingness to stick with Alina was a testament to the strength of their friendship.  

I also appreciated the diversity of the cast of characters. Not only was Alina Japanese-American, and grappling with what that meant, Colleen was a person of colour and Alian’s musical cast mates Ethan and Harrison were same-sex attracted.

As a writer, I understood Alina’s feeling of being torn between her passion and the people she loved, and my favourite line was:

“It wasn’t art or relationships, art or people. It really was both. An artist’s relationship with people could change what she created, for better or worse.”

An excellent #Own Voices story that explored friendship, romance and art through a likeable cast of characters.

I would like to thank Allen and Unwin for providing me with an Advanced Reader Copy of this novel.

You can buy a copy of The Other Side of Perfect from Readings independent booksellers.

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