Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Maggie Shipstead's elegantly written new novel “Astonish Me” immerses readers in the strange and rarified world of professional ballet. "Etonnez-moi," or "astonish me," ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev famously exhorted his dancers in the Ballets Russes... I don't know if the novel "astonished" me exactly, but it fully absorbed and charmed me, and its nuanced characters even made an appearance in my dreams.
Joan Joyce, a dancer in the corps de ballet of a major NYC ballet company in the 1970s, begins to realize that she lacks the star quality to be a prima ballerina. Her coke-sniffing roommate Elaine has been promoted to soloist, but true success in the intense, brutal dance world seems painfully out of Joan’s reach. Joan helps the dashing Russian star Arslan Rusakov defect, driving the get-away car in his escape... but she soon finds herself replaced as his lover and dancing partner by a more talented Russian ballerina.
Joan rebounds from this rejection into the arms of her childhood friend Jacob, a man who idolizes her. She retreats into the quieter, safer life of a wife, mother and dance teacher in suburban California. Years later, when her teenaged son shows astonishing promise as a dancer, Joan is reluctantly pulled back into the orbit of her former lover.
As a teen in the ‘80s, I was fascinated by the glamorous world of ballet, with its thrilling and romantic Cold War mystique. Shipstead ably re-creates this universe and brings the dance scenes to life. The novel, however, is about more than just ballet. Shipstead explores themes such as the relentless pursuit of perfection and its emotional costs, and the difference between obsession and love. “Astonish Me” strikes me as an excellent choice for book clubs; its juicy, operatic plot will appeal to many readers, but it could also provide good fodder for discussions on love, marriage, ambition, parenthood, etc.
“Astonish Me” is not a perfect novel, to be sure. At times, it struck me as perhaps too sparse and not fully developed. Once curled up in this story and in these interesting characters' lives, I wanted to stay there longer. Shipstead reveals the plot’s big “secret” (which surely every observant reader will have guessed) to two of the main characters with a plot device that seems contrived and unlikely. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this highly readable and often mesmerizing novel. Maggie Shipstead, who received much acclaim for her debut “Seating Arrangments,” proves herself again with her second novel, and I look forward to her future work with pleasure.
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