Astonish Me

Maggie Shipstead

Published by Knopf 8 April 2014

272pp, hardback, $25.95

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner


Love you more – or less, or different: those central yet rarely articulated balances of commitment and affection are the themes of Maggie Shipstead’s second novel. Her debut, Seating Arrangements – – was an intricate comic ensemble which won the Dylan Thomas and other awards, but this new book, set in the world of ballet in the US, is a more conventional and less humorous tale, intricate only in its non-chronological arrangement of chopped episodes spread across several decades.

The central character, Joan, is a good but not great dancer who has earned her fame more as the helpmeet and lover of a Nureyev-esque (but straight) Russian dancer, Arslan Rusakov, than for her art.  The Russian, a promiscuous and self-centered soul, was happy to involve her in his defection to the West, then moved on to other loves and better partners after freedom was gained and Joan’s dance limitations became apparent.

But there’s another man in Joan’s life, Jacob, the nerdy boy she’s known since childhood, whose admiration she has accepted as a given. To Jacob’s delight, Joan chooses to marry him and give birth to their son, Harry. As the decades pass, Joan learns to love Jacob although never with the scorching intensity of her passion for Arslan. Meanwhile Harry has become the focus of both parents’ aspirations, Jacob’s for the best academic fulfilment of his child’s evident gifts, Joan’s that he might have the talent to dance.

As with novels located in the theatre, ballet stories seem often to inhabit a narrow character range, leaning towards the stereotype, and Astonish Me, with its imperious star dancers, gay choreographers and besotted ingénues, doesn’t entirely dodge those bullets.

Where Shipstead talents shine undimmed are in the relishably piercing quality of her insights and the freshness of her imagery. If this novel’s schematic steps lead to a symmetrical conclusion where the author’s overworked plot line is a little too visible, the quality of Shipstead’s prose acts as a significant counterbalance. Readable and cleverly woven, Astonish Me makes for satisfying, intelligent escapism: perfect for next summer’s beach.

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