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  • Written by Yona Zeldis McDonough
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780385507165
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The Four Temperaments

A Novel

Written by Yona Zeldis McDonoughAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Yona Zeldis McDonough


List Price: $9.99


On Sale: September 03, 2002
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-385-50716-5
Published by : Doubleday Knopf
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The spellbinding story of a father and son, both married, who fall in love with the same alluring ballerina.
Oscar Kornblatt has been a first violinist with the New York City Ballet for so many years that he scarcely notices the throngs of eager young dancers who fill the ranks of the corps de ballet. But Ginny Valentine catches his eye, and when he comes to know her he becomes utterly enchanted by her. One night when Ruth, his quietly independent wife, is away, he brings Ginny back to his Upper West Side apartment and the two become lovers.

While the affair doesn’t last, Oscar’s attachment to Ginny continues to flourish. He invites her to join his family for Thanksgiving dinner, where she meets and falls in love with Oscar’s eldest son, Gabriel, home from San Francisco for the holiday. Gabriel, married to a beautiful, highly unstable woman, finds himself falling under Ginny’s spell. As the bonds of the family begin to erode, Ruth takes drastic and shocking measures to salvage what is most precious to her: her baby granddaughter, Isobel.

Set against the glamorous, exciting world of the New York City Ballet, The Four Temperaments explores the ways in which love and marriage are tested. Through its unforgettable cast of characters, this novel reveals how the demands of the flesh can suddenly, almost inexplicably, turn lives upside down. With the assurance and virtuosity of a seasoned storyteller, Yona Zeldis McDonough presents the powerfully sexy story of two adulterous affairs and imbues them with an irresistible emotional undercurrent.

From the Hardcover edition.



Oscar Kornblatt was in love. Never mind that he was gray-haired, soft around the middle and, despite his wife Ruth's patient ironing, always wearing a rumpled shirt. Forget all that. In his mind's eye, Oscar was Prince Siegfried, young, limber and lithe, as he waltzed Ginny Valentine, his exquisite swan, across the vast stage of his imagination.

Oscar's Swan Lake image of himself and Ginny was not as far-fetched as it may have seemed, for he was a violinist with the New York City Ballet and Ginny Valentine was a dancer in the corps. From the shadowed nether world of the orchestra pit, he could sense her moving across the floorboards of the stage above. And, sometimes, if the angle was just right, he could even see her, just the merest glimpse. Ginny never stayed in one place for long, and Oscar did have to pay attention to the score, after all. But those moments when she came skittering into his field of vision were blessed, and late at night, lying in bed as Ruth dreamed peacefully beside him, he thought about them and he smiled.

Ginny had been dancing with the company for a little more than a year. Oscar had been playing with the orchestra for nearly twenty-five. He had thought that by this time, he would be indifferent to the surge of eager young things who washed up on the gritty sands of the corps de ballet every year, each as bright and as innocuous as a bit of colored sea glass.

His reaction to these girls had nonetheless undergone a transformation over the years. In the beginning, he had despised them. He was in his early thirties then, old enough to realize that the flame of youthful brilliance would not be his, young enough still to feel embittered by that fact. He hadn't wanted the job with the ballet orchestra anyway, but by then he and his wife had two sons to support. The struggle of trying to assemble one ill-fated string quartet after another was wearing him down. And then there was Ruth. Ruth, who had patiently endured their first apartment, a dark basement on East Sixth Street, and, later, the burned-out buildings that lined the block of their apartment building on West 122nd Street. But when she became pregnant for the third--and Oscar prayed final--time, even he could see that enough was enough. The job was offered and he grudgingly took it.

Ruth, Oscar and the boys moved into a large, comfortable apartment on West End Avenue, an affordable option in the days before the Manhattan real estate boom. It had neither the grandeur of Riverside Drive--vistas that opened seamlessly onto an expanse of the rippling, dark waters of the Hudson River--nor the romance of Central Park West, with its lacy backdrop of flowering trees and shrubs, but it was nevertheless a big step up in the world. At least materially. The family was delighted: the boys went racing in their socks across the smooth, sun-checkered floors and spent hot, happy afternoons in Riverside Park. Ruth joined the local synagogue and befriended the owners of the small neighborhood shops. But Oscar, although outwardly cheerful, seethed within. He had become a breadwinner, not an artist. Secretly, he was mortified, pushed into the narrow world of conventional respectability. A world in which the hot star of genius, and all its urgent, unpredictable heat, was forever snuffed out.

He took out his resentment not on his family, or at least not much, but on the dancers, the skinny, silly girls for whom the audiences sat mesmerized, applauded and threw armloads of expensive, useless flowers. For these Philistines--and Oscar also lumped the dancers into this category--the music was just so much backdrop, part of the decor. Oh, he had heard the dancers talk about the music, how it inspired them, moved them, whatever. But he could see that it was all a sham, a poor cover for their own monumental narcissism that pranced onstage shouting, "Look at me! Look at me!" though of course they never actually said a word. He observed, more than once, the way they upstaged each other, intruding on one another's musical cues, anticipating a rival's exit from the stage and starting just a beat too soon. They gloated when another dancer was injured or ill. All this would have been comical in Oscar's eyes had it not been so naked.

Generally, there was very little personal contact between the dancers and the musicians. But, once in a while, the score called for a difficult musical solo and the musician who performed it would be called onto the stage during the applause. Oscar had watched this happen--though fortunately not to him--and found something both heartbreaking and pathetic about seeing the two performers up there together. There was the ballerina--arms filled with roses, resplendent in the scanty costume that revealed her sweat-soaked limbs--holding the musician by the hand. The musician would shuffle toward the front of the stage, a shaggy trained bear, a portent of death in his ill-fitting, dark suit, while she--all light and silver and air--held out the unspoken promise of immortality to the fatuous, cheering audience.

For years, Oscar had made it a point of honor to ignore the dancers, not bothering to learn their names or pretending not to know them if he somehow did; refusing to acknowledge them if he saw them in the halls or elevators of the theater. But, little by little, his sense of injury began to subside. His third son, Benjamin, was born; the two older boys, Gabriel and William, thrived. Ruth seemed happy, happier than he had seen her in a long time. She began singing again; true, it was only in the shower, but the rich, ripe sound of her powerful contralto filled him with wistful and sweet memories of their courtship in the mosquito-filled, lilac dusks at Tanglewood. He received professional recognition, such as it was, and the attention acted as balm to his touchy ego. He stopped hating the dancers. He no longer needed to.

It was during these years that he discovered that he was even occasionally attracted to one of them, though his interest never lighted upon the green girls of the corps. Instead, he was drawn to the older dancer, the established star whose hunger for fame had peaked into a gracious and perhaps even complacent acceptance of her exalted stature. Clarissa Castille was such a dancer: beautiful, poised and intelligent as far as her limited education permitted. She had studied piano for some years and could actually talk about music apart from how it related to her dancing. She was happily married, as was Oscar, so an affair was not a real option for either of them. Anyway, Oscar didn't want to have an affair. He loved Ruth, loved the life he had with her. But he couldn't deny that he also enjoyed, immensely, the hint of flirtation that laced the postperformance dinners he shared with Clarissa. He derived great pleasure from gazing at her expressive brown eyes, the intricately coiffed black hair that revealed her long, elegant neck, and the way she shifted and twisted the rings--of amber, garnet, opal, turquoise--around her lovely fingers. When she left the company to have a child, he was genuinely sorry.

There were two others like her over the years, women with whom he formed congenial though never constraining bonds of friendship. Then this phase too began to pass. His sons grew up, he and Ruth grew older. He watched as the two elder boys married. He moved up through the ranks of the orchestra. Though outwardly pleased, he remained fundamentally detached from the change in status. His youthful dreams had mercifully faded; he was no longer consumed by the desire to shine. Instead, he was grateful for the ongoing good fortune of his life--the joy of playing, and being transported by, his music. The love of his wife and sons. He relished the palpable, reassuring pleasures of the flesh: good food, good wine, a comfortable home, vacations in New England and, every so often, Europe. He took no more notice of the young dancers who buzzed around the theater than a gardener did of the bees.

It was into this bucolic landscape that Ginny Valentine burst, sudden and shocking as a sharp silver tack that lodged without warning in his naked foot.

One day after rehearsal was over, he was carefully putting his instrument back in its case when he heard behind him a high, clear voice that sounded faintly southern, though he couldn't have said whether its cadences emerged from Georgia or Texas. "Mr. Kornblatt," it said as he turned around, "do you think I could speak to you for a minute?" There was Ginny, in a red V-necked leotard and red tights. Even Oscar, who generally took little notice of such things, was surprised by this costume. Weren't they all supposed to wear black and pink?

"Why, of course, Miss . . . ?" he said.

"Valentine. But just call me Ginny."

"Ginny, then," he said. "What can I do for you?" He knew he sounded insincere, even patronizing, but, really, it was hard to take any of them, particularly a very young one outfitted like this, too seriously.

"It's about the music," she said.

"The music?"

"Yes, the Stravinsky. I think you're playing it too slowly."

"Do you, Miss Valentine?" he said, the patronizing tone now laced with the metallic edge of annoyance.

"Ginny," she said, flashing a smile filled with large, white, slightly protruding teeth. If she was aware of how she had offended him, she gave no sign. "I think it lags. Especially in the second movement."

"I've been playing that piece for more years than--" he began.

"That's just the point," she interrupted. "Maybe you need to think about it in a new way. It seems to me just a little bit stale."

Oscar looked at her, hardly able to believe his ears. To walk up to a seasoned musician, a well-respected violinist, and blithely tell him that you thought his playing lagged and had grown stale! She was either brazen or monumentally stupid. He could have her fired for saying such a thing. In fact, he would do that, he would speak to Erik Holtz, Ballet Master in Chief, and he would have her fired tomorrow. No, today, in fact. But before he could tell her as much, he heard her saying, "Look, are you busy now? Maybe we could have a cup of coffee or something. So I could tell you what I mean?"

It was only then that he really saw her: glossy, light brown hair parted in the center of a pale, smooth forehead beneath which were closely set, gray-green eyes. Ears as intricate and fine as nautilus shells revealed by her tightly bound bun. Luminous white teeth. Her arms were the merest ribbons; her legs, steel. She pinned him with a look at once so hopeful and warm, so eager and intense, that he found himself saying, "You go change. I'll wait here."

They went to one of the Upper West Side's once-ubiquitous and now disappearing coffee shops: Formica tables, leatherette seats, tiny boxes of cereal lining the upper shelves and plastic-coated menus that went on for pages. Ginny still wore the red leotard, only she had added a pair of jeans and a black crocheted shawl. Her pointe shoes peeped out like an improbable pair of rabbit ears from the large, ungainly bag that she--like the rest of them--hoisted over her delicate shoulder. At the base of her throat was a small, curved scar. Oscar found his eyes drawn to it; it seemed to wink with the movements of her throat as she spoke or swallowed. He wished he could reach over and put his finger--gently, so gently--upon it.

The waitress appeared. Oscar ordered black coffee, and despite Ruth's nagging concern over his weight, a glazed doughnut. Ginny's lips moved slightly as she scanned the menu. She settled finally on waffles with strawberries and whipped cream and a side order of bacon.

"Tell me about the music," he said when their orders arrived. He took a small bite of the doughnut, conscious of wanting to make it last, at least most of the way through her meal. But he needn't have worried; she fairly inhaled her food, consuming it with quick, eager bites that she washed down with large gulps of milk.

"It gets bogged down when you play it too slowly," she said. "I think he meant it to sound more energetic, more excited, you know?"

"He?" asked Oscar. The ordinary doughnut was suddenly rendered light, sweet, delicious; even the ersatz black coffee was a wonderful counterpoint to its sweetness.

"Stravinsky," she said, matter-of-factly. Her glazed lips shone with maple syrup. Oscar wasn't even surprised that she presumed to know the composer's thoughts.

They spent over an hour in the coffee shop, talking not only about the Stravinsky score, but also about Ravel, Bach, Tchaikovsky and Hindemith. She knew nothing about theory or terminology, but she had a bright, quirky way of looking at things that Oscar found appealing. And her appetite! He had never seen a dancer--nor anyone else--eat with such abandon. She licked her fingers, the back of her spoon, the end of her straw. Oscar wondered what such a girl would be like in bed and then hoped she couldn't tell what he was thinking. Fortunately, she just kept right on talking, about her dancing, now. Her eyes shone the way Joan of Arc's must have. Even Clarissa had never looked so possessed and it made Oscar uneasy. To change the subject, he asked about her accent, which seemed to grow increasingly southern as she spoke. She told him about the small Louisiana town where she had grown up and the ballet lessons she had taken in New Orleans. And what about that name; surely Valentine was something she had invented, like so many of them, for the stage? But it turned out he was wrong.

"My mother met my father at a Valentine's Day dance in Atlanta. She'd gone there with her church group for the weekend. He told her he was the son of the minister at the First Baptist Church. That his daddy was a big deal in the community. Guess that won her over."

"But it wasn't true?"

"Not a word. She went back home with a phony name and address on a piece of memo paper. Oh, and with me too--though she didn't know it yet." There was a noisy pause as Ginny drained her glass through her straw.

"So you never knew him?" Oscar asked.

"Only what Mama told me. She said he seemed so sincere. Genuine. And handsome too. She picked Valentine as a way of remembering him. For a long time, she really did think he'd come back."

From the Hardcover edition.
Yona Zeldis McDonough|Author Q&A

About Yona Zeldis McDonough

Yona Zeldis McDonough - The Four Temperaments

Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of The Four Temperaments, a novel that Doubleday published in 2002. She is the editor of and a contributor to The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty, as well as All the Available Light: A Marilyn Monroe Reader. She lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her husband and two children.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Yona Zelds McDonough

Q. How did this book come to be?

A. I don't every feel that I decide, in an intellectual way, to write a book; I don¹t begin with an idea. I begin with a character. The character starts talking to me, telling me whatever it is he or she needs to say. There's an urgency about this, and a heightened sense of attention. I feel like I need to listen, very hard, to that voice that's talking, to hear what it is saying, to get it right.

Q. In a way, it sounds like you hear voices.

A. That is exactly what it's like. When the writing is going well, I don't even feel that I'm writing, I feel instead as if I am transcribing something that is being told to me. I am the conduit or the vessel, not the source. Of course, somewhere I do understand that I am the source; I'm not delusional in that way. But there is this curious sense of suspension, where I kind of know that but I still operate as if someone is talking to me. And someone is. My job is to listen to that person, listen and record what they are saying.

Q. Do you work with an outline? Do you know where the story is going?

A. Only in the most general way. I have an idea of how I think things will turn out, but sometimes, things don't work out in quite the way I expect. If your writing is going well, the characters dictate the direction the story will take. They--not you--have the clearest sense of what needs to happen, and why. E. M. Forester once likened writing a novel as driving in a car, late at night, on a a dark, unfamiliar road. You know what's directly in front of you and you know your general direction. But that's about it. It¹s a beautiful simile. And it very aptly describes the process.

Q. Classical ballet is a major part of this story. What is your own personal history with the subject?

A. I was an aspiring dancer for many years. I started studying ballet when I was seven, and l stopped taking class when I was sixteen. First, I went to a ballet studio in Brooklyn, where I lived. I had a very gifted and encouraging teacher in those years; she directed me to classes in Manhattan. When I was twelve, I applied and was accepted to the School of American Ballet in New York City. This is the school that feeds the New York City Ballet company; it is one of the most competitive places in the country, if not the world. I don't think I would have fared too well had I remained there; I was neither talented nor driven enough. But I didn¹t end up
attending class there for very long; instead, I found my way to another dance studio, one that no longer exists, on West 56th Street in Manhattan. For about five years, I attended classes there, first four days a week and then very quickly, six. In the summer, I might take two classes a day. The teacher, John Barker, had studied the Vagonova method in the Soviet Union, and he had a kind of fanatical way about the Russian method, which he considered superior to all others. He was a difficult, talented, even brilliant man. When I eventually left the studio and stopped dancing, he had still made his mark on me. It¹s the kind of training that, whether you become a professional or not, leaves its imprint. It¹s almost like a kind of religious training--it¹s that formative, that world-shaping.

Q. In what way?

A. Well, it asks so much of you, before you even have a chance to understand what it is you are sacrificing for it. In my case, this didn¹t turn out to be as much as some young dancers, who don¹t even graduate from high school, much less go to college. But I think it is wonderful, important training nonetheless: it gives you a sense of order and discipline, it teaches you to work hard and then harder. You are required to delay gratification in pursuit of your long term goals. These are lessons worth learning, whether you ever put on another pair of point shoes or not.

Q. Did writing this book help give you a sense of completion, or closure about that part of your life?

A. Yes it did. When I walked away from ballet, at sixteen, I had no real idea that I was giving it up for good. I thought I needed a break, that I would stop for a while and then resume dancing, either while I was in
college or perhaps taking a year or two off from my academic studies. I didn¹t understand how final my decision was. Even all this time later, I've still felt some residual sadness over that fact. Whenever I watch a great dancer perform, there is a part of me that wishes I could do that too. It¹s the one life I would have preferred over my own. But there is no second chance for a dancer. The moment you have is right then, when you¹re very young, and then not again. It¹s really over. Writing about dancer, however, is great consolation. On the page, it can happen again and again, any way you want.

Q. Did Ginny know that?

A. Absolutely. It¹s part of her drive, her ferocious nature. She knows how brief a dancer¹s professional life is. The demands ballet makes on the body are so rigorous. No dancer can withstand them for very long. The dancers in the corps de ballet, the ones who dance in every performance, sometimes twice a day, retire the soonest. Soloist and principal dancers who can space out their performances can last longer. But this is a given in that world. George Balanchine, who figures peripherally in this novel, was known to have told his dancers not to hold back, or to try to conserve themselves. There is no tomorrow in ballet. Everything is now.

Q. What about music? Do you have any formal training in that area?

A. Only the year or two I studied the piano as a girl. I stopped because my dance lessons seemed to take over and demand all of my time outside of school. Yet I¹m glad I had even that little bit of training. I think it
helped my dancing and enlarged my perspective. I see the music and the dance as interwoven; there is no dance without music. Or at least no dance that I¹m interested in watching. I love the way great dancing articulates the music to which it is set, and great music inspires the desire to dance. They are so intertwined.

Q. Why did you decide to use the alternating perspectives? Was it a challenge to write a novel in that way?

A. I really like the way the way any two people will interpret the same experience or events very differently. It as if you went to a party with a good friend and then the next day, you called to talk about your differing--perhaps vastly--impressions of the evening. All the nuances, all the subtleties that are open to widely divergent interpretation. That is all just so interesting to me. I wanted to explore that phenomenon in my novel. What Oscar thought of as so important, Ginny might have considered negligible. And Ruth might not have even known about it. We are all imprisoned--or cocooned--in our own small perspective. That¹s really all we can have. But a novel lets you play with that idea, lets you slip inside the minds of the different characters, hear their different inner voices. All those little strands taken together that make up the texture, the weave of experience.

Q. Can you talk a little bit more about the individual characters in the novel? Who they were and what they meant to you?

A. I think there is a way in which writers have to love their characters, even with their flaws and imperfections. I feel that way about mine. I know their weaknesses and their failings, and yet I still love them. I really am fond of Ruth, and would want her as my friend. Gabriel and Oscar are both weak in their ways, but have their strengths too. They change, I hope, and become better men than they were at the outset of the book. Ginny was perhaps the hardest for other people to like--I had rewrite many things about her to make her less objectionable. She was much worse in earlier drafts. But I felt I understood her well enough to forgive her. She was callow, not truly mean. And she does, by the end, come to some understanding of the harm she¹s inflicted. In some ways, she is my favorite character, not despite her flaws, but because of them.

From the Trade Paperback edition.



"In this complex and sparkling debut, McDonough writes of marriage and infidelity with precision and grace. The characters are deftly drawn, set in the glamorous world of the ballet. Ginny Valentine is a love object you won't soon forget, every good woman's nightmare, and every man's fantasy. What a great read!" –Adriana Trigiani, author of Big Stone Gap and Big Cherry Holler

"I cannot resist a book about a ballet dancer, and better yet a book that takes us backstage both at the theater and at the home of Ruth and Oscar Kornblatt. The Four Temperaments blends a family saga, a love story (times two), and the narrative of an ambitious and fiery ballerina into one delicious whole." –Jane Hamilton, author of Disobedience and A Map of the World

From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. This novel is told from five alternating points of view. What effect does this have on the way the narrative unfolds? What do you learn by reading the story through different sets of eyes?

2. A large part of the novel is devoted to the subjects of ballet and classical music. What themes do these two art forms suggest? How are the themes developed? Is music treated differently than dance? If so, in what way?

3. Both Penelope and Ginny are young women who grew up without their fathers. What effects of does this loss have on their respective characters? Are they each damaged in some way? How is that damage expressed?

4. This novel takes place chiefly in New York City, on Manhattan¹s Upper West Side. How is the city portrayed in the book? What role does it have in the story?

5. Ruth does not leave--or even consider leaving--Oscar when she finds out he has been unfaithful to her. Instead, her decision to go is prompted by something else. What is it that finally propels her into flight? Are you sympathetic with her decision? Why or why not? Do you feel she makes the right choice in the end?

6. What role do children play in the development of the story? Can you identify the novel¹s children, from different generations, and the meaning they suggest?

7. Ruth is a woman who wanted daughters, and had only sons. How does this affect her relationships with her daughters-in-law and her granddaughter Isobel? Is there an unfulfilled longing in her as a result of this desire? What effect does that loning have on the unfolding of the narrative?

8. Penelope is described as having obsessive-compulsive disorder. What does this suggest about her character? How are the themes of chaos and control expressed elsewhere in the book?

9. Describe Gabriel¹s relationship to the three central women in the novel: his wife, his mother and Ginny. What is his relationship with his father like, and how does it intersect with his connections to these three women?

10. Oscar and Gabriel each have an affair with the same woman. What themes does this suggest? How are these themes explored and resolved in the course of the story?

11. The concept of the four temperaments is explained, briefly, in the story. What significance does the idea of temperament--as a way of describing character--have in the novel? How is this achieved?

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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