Review: Astonish Me

Saturday, May 10, 2014

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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 (from Goodreads)

Forget your preconceptions about literary fiction - Maggie Shipstead's "Astonish Me" is a consuming read that dares to ask difficult questions about art, family and love. Shipstead - who was the celebrated author of "Seating Arrangements"  - mostly succeeds at crafting a narrative and characters that explore these big questions. The real triumph of this novel is the fractured, shifting narrative that starts in the 1970s New York City ballet world and then moves to Paris, California and back to New York over the span of thirty to forty years. I adored this structure and was devastated by the final chapter in a way that would not have been possible had Shipstead followed a conventional narrative line.


I happen to love the ballet and eat up any books that give an inside look at the physical demands and emotional costs of dedicating your life to an ephemeral art. From the opening scene, Shipstead gives the reader the sense of the darkened off-stage areas where ballerinas snip at and support each other, where the good dancers watch the truly great dancers. "Astonish Me" digs into the emotion of dance and so you really don't need to know your en point from your port de bras.

The characters also come across as intensely alive and terribly selfish- just real people living their lives but Shipstead has compassion for all of them and their dedication to art. It's been a long time since I can recall reading a book that takes such a multi-faceted look at people who are devoted to a calling and who desire to create something beautiful but struggle with incorporating that beauty into their lives. I read this book almost a month ago and I can still see Joan and Elaine and Mr. K in my head.

So why only four stars?  Unfortunately, Shipstead balances the entire book on one narrative revelation that is absolutely completely obvious from the very beginning and you can feel the book tighten and constrain whenever it comes near that secret. I wish Shipstead had trusted herself and her readers and just allowed the secret out into the open of the characters points of view. Then she really could have explored their motivations and hurts fully and the book would have much wiser and open emotionally.

The revelation of this secret also means that the last third of the book is consumed with plot over character development and we lose sight of our main character Joan. Her beautifully wrought emotional development is lost in the final pages and I found myself wanting to go back to her.

Every great novel has its flaws, it reaches too far and tries for something different. "Astonish Me" does all of these things and I would highly recommend it to all readers.

Disclaimer: I received an advance copy for review from the publisher. 

2 comments:

52booksorbust said...

I was not as thrilled with this book as you were. I loved Seating Arrangements and had rather high expectations. Also, i'm not a particular fan of ballet an mostly I couldn't relate to Joan.

Historical Fiction Notebook said...

I've heard that Seating Arrangements is a very different book in terms of setting and style. I think if I had read that before reading this one, my opinion would have been different.

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