& Review: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead


Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

“Ètonnez-moi, Diaghilev had said to his dancers in the Ballets Russes. Astonish Me.”

Book Title: Astonish Me
Author: Maggie Shipstead
Pages: 257
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Knopf
Date Published: April 8th, 2014
Date Read: May 8th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, borrowed from work
Cover Love: I like the font…and the ballet ribbon is a nice touch. It’s very obviously catering toward the “chick lit,” demographic, but then again, I don’t think many of my guy friends have a hankering to read a novel about ballet…Overall a take it or leave it cover for me. The title is really what drew me in. It’s commanding, bossy. Very in line with the teachers and rigors of ballet in the story.
Given Synopsis: “From the author of the widely acclaimed debut novel Seating Arrangements, winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize: a gorgeously written, fiercely compelling glimpse into the passionate, political world of professional ballet and its magnetic hold over two generations.

Astonish Me is the irresistible story of Joan, a ballerina whose life has been shaped by her relationship with the world-famous dancer Arslan Ruskov, whom she helps defect from the Soviet Union to the United States. While Arslan’s career takes off in New York, Joan’s slowly declines, ending when she becomes pregnant and decides to marry her longtime admirer, a PhD student named Jacob. As the years pass, Joan settles into her new life in California, teaching dance and watching her son, Harry, become a ballet prodigy himself. But when Harry’s success brings him into close contact with Arslan, explosive secrets are revealed that shatter the delicate balance Joan has struck between her past and present.

In graceful, inimitable prose, Shipstead draws us into an extraordinary world, and the lives of her vivid and tempestuous characters. Filled with intrigue, brilliant satire, and emotional nuance, Astonish Me is a superlative follow-up to Shipstead’s superb debut”
What I’d Add:  Secondary characters also get their chance to shine a little: Harry’s childhood friend, Chloe plays a big part in the book. Chloe’s parents, and Joan’s former roommate Elaine all have storylines that run parallel to the others.
It’s Sorta Like: Those ballet documentaries you see in your Netflix queue: First Position is the one that comes to mind for me (it’s an awesome documentary – go watch it!)
My Grade: A-
It doesn’t surprise me that this book spawned from a short story – “Battements” – that Shipstead was encouraged to expand. Every chapter reads like a short story loosely tied together to create a vast, expansive narrative. Great gaps of time separate the chapters, so that Joan (our main character) is newly married in one, and then with a seven year old in the next. This results in some great moments – Shipstead writes beautifully in this book (and I can only speak for this book because I haven’t read her other novel, Seating Arrangements) – but also leaves a gap between reader and character. Most of the characters: ballerinas, instructors, and children we only see growing up in spurts, are detached. They are disciplined, tightly wound. They are aloof, and so we as the reader, feel a little aloof from them.

BUT…I think this works! For a novel set in the strict structure of the ballet world, the isolation and lone-wolf feelings the ballerinas and their families feel seems normal and appropriate. When I think ballet, I think I could never do that. And/or Good lord that looks like a lot of work. But boy, does it look amazing. A ballerina’s dedication and skill intimidates me. I both envy the beauty they can create and am thankful that I don’t have to put my body through that pain, that rigor (I told you – I’m inherently lazy!). That’s what you feel that these characters experience – they’re exhausted having to create the illusion of effortless-ness. They keep each other at a distance (no one is particularly close in any of their relationships: mother and son, teacher and student, husband and wife, friends…), and don’t allow themselves to be particularly emotional.

Shipstead’s writing does that instead. Boy, can this author paint a picture, sum up feeling, describe a dance  so that it is clear and lovely to read. I can’t imagine describing a ballet in prose. I mean, I am not a ballerina (I don’t think those two months of ballet classes when I was six count…), nor have I been to many ballets (one in total: The Nutcracker around Christmastime last year), but it’s not unlike writing an action scene: all that movement, the steps and the visual picture a dancer’s body creates, it’s so hard to coordinate and make clear! I am to Shipstead what I am to those darn ballerinas: envious and exhausted just thinking about the task she’s seemingly so effortlessly executed.

It’s a beautiful, but not touch-y feel-y novel. If you like short stories, an episodic feel to your novels, and/or well-executed “flowery” language (negative connotation, I know), then Astonish Me will do exactly what it’s title promises (oh man, see what I did there?!)


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