Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Thinking out loud here – after an author releases a stunningly brilliant debut, do they feel rushed to release a second book, riding on the wave of success?

Like the ballet career of the main character, Joan, Maggie Shipstead’s second book, Astonish Me, is accomplished but not astonishing.

It’s a peek into the demanding world of professional ballet and is told predominantly through the eyes of Joan, a young American dancer who helps a Soviet ballet star, Arslan Rusakov, defect in 1975.  Also in the cast is Jacob, the man Joan eventually marries and Harry, their son, who also becomes a ballet dancer. Through Harry, Joan is pulled back into a world she’d purposely left behind – a world that includes Arslan. Notably, Joan is a member of the corps, never quite making it as a soloist. This important detail sets up what I found to be the most interesting theme of the book – the strive for perfection (and conversely, the threat of failure).

“She wonders out loud to Elaine how much of her life she wants to spend sliding one foot out from the other and back again, lifting one arm over her head and lowering it. She says, “I feel like I’m working on an assembly line, but I’m not even making anything. I’m just doing something that disappears as soon as it happens…””

While I’m loathe to make comparisons to Shipstead’s debut, Seating Arrangements, I’m going to because I really, really loved that book. Astonish Me lacked the black humour of Seating Arrangements. It lacked the thoroughly horrid characters and the preposterous situations (exploding whales and automatic garage doors spring to mind) – these were the things I loved about that book.

Secondly, Seating Arrangements was a compact story set over the course of one weekend. In contrast, Astonish Me shifts back and forth over three decades and I never really felt a sense of place or time, as I perhaps should have. It’s a missed opportunity because the seventies and eighties, the world of ballet, and the political landscape that went with the defection of artists to the West, all makes for interesting reading – I wish Shipstead had exploited it more.

Finally, although Shipstead focuses on family dynamics (as she did in Seating Arrangements), the ‘history-repeats-itself’ plot was obvious and painfully neat.

It seems I’ve created quite the list of gripes but despite this, I did find the story compelling – just because you think you know what’s going to happen doesn’t mean you don’t want to watch it unfold (especially when that involves reading Shipstead’s very fine words). Don’t get hung up on the overarching plot, instead enjoy the detail.

“In the shadows, other corps girls stand waiting in a clump, tutus overlapping like a mat of stiff lavender blossoms.”

I received my copy of Astonish Me from the publisher, Knopf, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

3/5 I wanted more from this book but that said, it was a remarkably good distraction from my mid-semester exams.

This is a book about ballerinas. As far as I can tell, they don’t eat. Joan and her friend Elaine share a banana before rehearsal. This reminds me of a favourite moment in Real Housewives of Beverley Hills* where Yolanda tells her daughter Gigi, a model who has just fainted on set, to eat “three almonds”. Yeah, go crazy Gigi. I mean, what the actual fuck? Three almonds? Half a banana? They should all relax and eat this banana bread. With a few almonds on the side.

Astonish-Me- Maggie-Shipstead

*Okay, it’s out there. Watched it.

9 responses

  1. I like how we reached the same conclusion (despite “these”, still compelling) for different reasons. I gave it that extra .5 of a star because I tried to judge it independently of Seating Arrangement, which was so, so good. I liked it well enough, but it’s hard to top her debut.

    And you totally missed out on the chocolate cake, the waffles with peanut butter, and

    And you do realize Shipstead’s too young to remember the ’70s and ’80s, right? 🙂

  2. OK, I’m in love. You took a review of literary fiction and worked in a Real Housewives reference. We have to meet for drinks, fattening food, and bad TV.

    That aside, I agree on the novel. Halfway through I was fairly close to putting it down. Not in disgust but just because I didn’t care. Then, Shipstead threw in that major twist and suddenly it was engrossing.

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