Book review: ‘The Unexpected Waltz’

Anyone who has seen “Dirty Dancing” – or even just idly flipped past “Dancing with the Stars” – knows the dance floor holds some special allure, even (or especially) for nondancers. Swiveling hips, intense gazes and sultry drama, all set to music, make up a dynamite formula that keeps people coming back for more. Against this cultural backdrop, Charlotte author Kim Wright’s “The Unexpected Waltz” is an easy sell.

Wright’s heroine, Kelly, is a hospice volunteer and patron of the arts with lots of time on her hands after the death of her pillar-of-the-community husband. She is adrift. Her spacious, elegant home is empty and quiet. She’s childless, and her sassy best friend lives several states away. Each day is a fog of loneliness and routine, until the day she blunders into a strip-mall dance studio and is instantly captivated by the language of movement and the exoticism of ballroom culture.

She immediately notices the contrast between the graceful instructors – including two dashing young Russian men – and their older, decidedly affluent students. The stereotypes are clear to her, but before she leaves, she signs up for a class anyway.

As Kelly’s confidence on the dance floor grows, she sheds some of her reserve and finds a whole new community – and we learn more about how Kelly Wilder, the pretty bride with a big secret, became Kelly Madison, society wife.

Her ever-widening circle includes other students with their own problems: Steve, the plastic surgeon whose love life is a shambles; Pamela, the arrogant wife of a real estate developer. Kelly’s disparate worlds harmonize when the dance studio puts on a holiday showcase at the hospice, where she has befriended Carolina, a young mother who’s hungry to taste as much of life as possible before succumbing to cancer.

At the center of this midlife blossoming is Kelly’s (notably platonic) relationship with dance instructor Nik, a much younger man whose brusqueness and faltering English cloak a deep anxiety about his precarious place in the United States. She practices choreography; he practices colloquial English.

From her fresh vantage point atop sky-high dance heels, Kelly finds the courage to confront her painful past – with the requisite help from Facebook. Her new lease on life is so vivid and encompassing that the violent climax of the book, which takes place the day of a big dance competition, is almost an afterthought.

Readers in Charlotte, where Wright’s main character resides, will have no trouble envisioning Kelly choosing apples at The Fresh Market or fussing with a centerpiece at a Mint Museum soiree. Wright effectively captures the character of the city in the details: the neighborhood klatch, the odd angle of a McMansion on a hilly lot, the obligatory strip-mall Mexican place that is everyone’s favorite dive, the multicultural population, and the obvious and not-so-obvious ways that money speaks (though sharp-eyed Charlotteans will note that the intersection of Providence and Rama roads, where a younger Kelly had an illicit rendezvous, doesn’t exist).

Kelly could easily be another Diane Lane-type heroine: beautiful, broken, desperate for change. However, Kelly’s unspoken observations, hidden behind the expected outward gentility, are thorny. When her lawyer responds to a question about immigration law with, “Are you having some problem with your housekeeper?” she fumes. She’s self-deprecating to the core, uncomfortable with her affluence and her surroundings, and awkward in her own skin.

The dance world gives her new freedom in self-expression, and amid the gaudy costumes and showy choreography, her generosity and thirst for adventure triumph.

Michelle Moriarity Witt, a former copy editor for The News & Observer who lived in Charlotte for four years, is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.