Astonish Me

Posted: Friday, July 25, 2014, 8:55 am

Reserve now!

Astonish Me

Maggie Shipstead


reserve now!

Jeff R


General fiction, Sports

In brief


Ballet takes center stage in this novel that highlights the rigors of professional dance and the challenges of self-acceptance.

Maggie Shipstead broke onto the literary stage with her critically acclaimed debut novel Seating Arrangements. Her follow-up, Astonish Me, is no less notable, if perhaps for slightly different reasons. There's less satire, less slapstick and less social commentary in Astonish Me and, given the subject matter, that's a fine thing. While one could argue that Seating Arrangements focused on how individuals reconcile themselves to others, Astonish Me focuses on how we reconcile to ourselves, to our limitations and to our past.

At the heart of the novel is Joan, a ballerina who's good enough to go places, but not so great that she'll be a star. Her talents are such that her best efforts and top performances manage to keep her on the stage, if not necessarily in the spotlight. Her shortcomings are only exacerbated as she finds herself in an unhealthy and ill-defined relationship with Arslan Ruskov, a world-famous Russian dancer who's recently defected to the U.S.

Joan sees her career waning and opts out. She chooses not the life of a dancer, but the life of a mother and teacher. As fate would have it, her son Harry turns out to be a gifted dancer in his own right. It's clear that he is destined for greatness. The story comes full circle as Harry's undeniable talent brings Joan back into Arslan's orbit.

And what of reconciliation? Shipstead presents a world where identity and physicality are inexorably linked. It's a place where who you are is defined by what your body can do, and what your body can do defines your relationship with others. This is lot to consider, especially if you're among the vast majority of individuals who've never had life and livelihood tied directly to the quest for physical perfection.

In this sense, Astonish Me reads more like a sports novel than domestic fiction. Indeed, the rigors of ballet are highlighted repeatedly and in great detail. So, too, are the rigors of self-acceptance. In Astonish Me, Shipstead offers little in terms of external rewards. Each character, if they're to find peace at all, must find it within themselves.