The Book We're Talking About: 'Astonish Me' By Maggie Shipstead

Astonish Me: A novel
By Maggie Shipstead
Knopf, $25.95
Publishes on April 8, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think
Maggie Shipstead’s first novel, Seating Arrangements, elicited comparisons to Edith Wharton, as both wrote of characters that simultaneously mocked and inhabited old-money societies. It comes as a surprise, then, that her second book is a leaping departure from her first –- rather than chronicling the comically irrelevant goings-on of Nantucketers, Astonish Me is an earnest look at the lives of ballerinas. Shipstead’s token wit is absent, but the book’s somber tone is harmonious with its earnest characters and their often-thwarted ambitions.

At front and center is Joan Joyce, who leads us through much of the novel in spite of never rising to stardom within her New York ballet company. Early on, she proves herself to be both serious and irreverent, as she assists in the defecting of world-renowned Russian dancer Arslan Rusakov, with whom she has a brief and tumultuous affair. It’s difficult to imagine why her discipline and gutsiness doesn’t translate into a moving stage presence, while her frosty nemesis, Ludmilla Yedemskya, captivates audiences.

The answer, of course, is biology, a stand-in for fate in the world of ballet and in Shipstead’s novel. Ludmilla may be terse and unkind, but “she has everything. She has the right feet, the right hips, the right arms, the right pinkie fingers.” Therefore, she has what it takes to perform as a soloist, and eventually to marry Arslan, much to Joan’s dismay. There is, for Arslan and most of the book's other characters, no boundary between dance and love, art and life.

Joan opts to quit dancing, and to marry her childhood friend, Jacob, who has pursued her for most of their lives. The couple moves to Southern California, where they raise a son, Harry, who shows an early affinity for ballet. When her former roommate, Elaine, comes to visit, Joan laments to her that she’s become boring. Elaine can’t exactly protest: in her 30s, she’s still dancing, and considering marrying her company’s ingenious choreographer, Mr. K, in spite of his seeming preference for men.

Rather than sashaying through time, the book jumps, sometimes clumsily, between the '70s in New York City and Paris and the early '90s in Southern California. Shipstead never stays in one place long enough to allow the reader to settle in and feel comfortable, and maybe that was her intention. Astonish Me has a kinesthetic energy, not unlike that of a dancer performing.

If the flashback are at times sloppy, the conflicts between characters both major and minor are resolved neatly and cathartically, making for an enjoyable meditation not only on ballet, but on desire, ambition and love.

What other reviewers think
Publishers Weekly: "Shipstead’s prose moves fluidly through settings as varied as a ballet rehearsal and a suburban backyard, and her characterizations are full. The story proceeds with a quiet insistence that is matched by the inevitability of its denouement."

Kirkus: "The denouements provided for the novel’s many well-drawn characters would be more satisfying if readers hadn’t been distracted by flashbacks that serve no compelling artistic purpose."

Who will read it?
Fans of realist fiction and plot-driven prose. Also, anyone interested in ballet, as both an art form and a feat of athleticism -- both are discussed in the novel.

Opening lines:
"In the wings, behind a metal rack crowded with bundles of cable and silk flower garlands and the stringless lutes from act 1, two black dachshunds lie in a basket. They are awake but motionless, their small, uneasy eyes fixed on the dancers who come smiling and leaping offstage and give themselves over to violent exhaustion, standing stooped, hands on hips, heaving like racehorses."

Notable passage:
"For Joan, Paris has the feeling of waiting. All the elegance, the light and water and stone and refined bits of greenery, must be for something, something more than simple habitation and aggressive driving of Renaults and exuberant besmearing with dog shit. The city seems like an offering that has not been claimed. Its beauty is suspenseful."

Rating, out of ten:
7 - Although cobbled together in parts, Shipstead's story is swiftly moving and beautifully crafted.

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