“Look,” she says, “I know what you see when you look at me is a waitress. Somebody who just has to manage to get your coffee on the table while it’s still hot. But can you even conceive that that’s not all I am? That maybe I’m an artist, too, but a different kind?”
“What does that mean, a different kind?” he asks, now irritated. “All artists–all true artists–know that their art must become their passion.” He settles back in his chair.
“But there’s so much out there,” she says. “So many ways to create. I don’t like cutting off my options.”
“Ah, but then you cut off your chances of creating something important. You’re only left with mediocrity, and mediocrity is the true enemy.”
(from When We Danced on Water, page 45 in the ARC; finished version could be different)
In When We Danced on Water, Evan Fallenberg covers so much ground and takes readers on a whirlwind journey, but the book is written so beautifully and reads so easily that they won’t realize the enormity of it all until they turn the last page. When I reached the end, I just had to sit still and contemplate its depth and breadth. When We Danced on Water is a novel about passion and art, love and obsession, war and survival, and how the hurts in our past don’t have to dictate our future.
Fallenberg tells the story of Teodor Levin, a famous ballet dancer and choreographer who at 85 contemplates his legacy. He visits the same Tel Aviv café on a daily basis and befriends Vivi, a 40-something waitress still haunted by a past relationship who dabbles in various art forms. Both Teo and Vivi harbor secrets that made them withdraw from life in one way or another, but their friendship reawakens their passion and creative spirit.
Over the course of the novel, Teo and Vivi’s stories are revealed, with their flaws laid bare, their damage so apparent, and their history so fascinating. Teo was a Polish Jew living in Warsaw just prior to World War II, and his parents understood that Hilter would stop at nothing to take over Europe and oppress the Jews, so with some urging, they sent him to Copenhagen at the age of 15 to attend the school of the Royal Danish Ballet. In September 1939, on the day Hilter wages war on Poland, 17-year-old Teo is in Berlin against the wishes of his parents and the Danish Jewish family who took him in. Teo makes the fateful decision to dance his heart out and go beyond the role he was chosen to portray — a move that both saves his life and scars it permanently.
I was more fascinated with Teo’s story, but Vivi’s captivated me as well. She was in a relationship opposed by her parents, and she was in Berlin when the wall divided east and west Germany. Fallenberg masterfully juxtaposes the Berlin Teo knew before and during the war to what Vivi saw afterward — along with her desire to know the “real” city and its culture while being haunted by the wall and the past and the danger it represents. Teo’s life was changed forever by throwing caution to the wind, and despite the horrifying things he experienced during the war as a result, he pushes Vivi to see how being cautious can prevent one from discovering their passions. Fallenberg does a wonderful job showing the evolution of the characters and their relationship, and he flawlessly inserts Berlin’s tumultuous history into the narrative.
When We Danced on Water is another novel likely to make my list of the best reads of 2011. Fallenberg effortlessly merges a war story with one that centers on the creative process, and besides simply telling a darn good story, he provides much food for thought about igniting passions in our own lives that could prompt us to live more fully and love more deeply.
© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.