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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Published by Knopf, ISBN 978-0307962904
Hardcover, $25.95, 272 pages

Genre: Literary Fiction
Plot: Joan is a young professional ballerina who meets Aslan, a famous Russian ballet legend and helps him to escape to the United States. After their torrid affair ends, she goes back home, marries her high school boyfriend and they have a son together. Years later, the boy becomes a dancer himself and wishes to meet the famous dancer his mother once knew.

My Review: In Maggie Shipstead's first novel, Seating Arrangements, she managed to brilliantly capture the voice of a middle-aged man contemplating an affair during the weekend of his daughter's wedding. I was so impressed with Shipstead's beautifully crafted sentences, it was like she spent hours making each one perfect.

In Astonish Me, Shipstead once again drops us into a world we don't know. We feel what it's like to be a part of a ballet company, the competition, the discipline and way one must give oneself completely over to become a dancer worthy of being part of a ballet company. Like athletes, at some point everyone must come to the realization that they are no longer good enough to go to the next level.

The novel moves back and forth in time, and we see Joan as a young dancer and then as a wife, mother and teacher. Joan's husband has loved her forever, but sometimes he feels she doesn't love him or their life as much. He says to Joan:
"Most of the time now you're here with me- really here, invested; it's not like it was at first- and I think, she's letting me know her, really know her the way people do when they're married. And at other times you're so distant it's like someone's swapped you out for a forgery. You seem like you're going through the motions."
One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Elaine, Joan's friend from the dance company. She is a better dancer than Joan, and has a long-time relationship with the dancer who founded their company. Shipstead could have another entire novel from Elaine's point-of-view.

Astonish Me is another brava performance from Shipstead. Joan is a fascinating protagonist, so complicated and although she is so closed up, Shipstead lets us see inside to who she really is. Fans of ballet will definitely like this insider's look.

rating 5 of 5 stars


  1. Because I took a zillion years of ballet, I usually love stories that involve dance.

  2. I really enjoyed Seating Arrrangements so am glad to hear this one is also good. Interesting how different the settings/subjects are for her two books.