Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book Review: "Astonish Me" by Maggie Shipstead

Maggie Shipstead's debut novel, Seating Arrangements, was a funny and touching comedy of manners which chronicled a man's search for sanity and solace in the midst of the days leading to his daughter's wedding. Shipstead chose a completely different route for her second novel, Astonish Me, which focuses on the world of ballet as well as the obsessiveness of relationships and the secrets they foster.

Joan Joyce is a ballet dancer in the early 1970s. For as long as she can remember, she has lived for nothing more than to dance, and she is conscious of the sacrifices she must make to do so, knowing that time is the greatest enemy of her dancing career. Deep inside, she knows she may never be more than a member of the dance corps, but she still feels the need to give her body and her emotions fully to every dance.

"She has been trained to believe that the motions are enough. Each motion is to be perfect, repeated endlessly and without variation, strung in a sequence with other motions like words in a sentence, numbers in a code."

After a chance meeting with famed Russian dancer Arslan Rusakov, Joan is chosen by the dancer to help him defect from the Soviet Union. She doesn't understand why Arslan chose her, but she doesn't care, and she throws herself fully into the task and their subsequent affair, even though she knows she'll never fully possess him, and she has no expectations that their relationship—personal or professional—will really endure. But she enjoys the brief notoriety she receives as the dancer who helped free Arslan.

Realizing her ballet career isn't going to last much longer, she throws herself into a relationship with her close friend, Jacob, who has loved her since they met in high school. The two raise a son, Harry, and move to California, but Joan always feels as if something is missing. She keeps abreast of the ballet world through her old roommate, Elaine, who continues dancing and becomes involved with their old dance company. Joan begins teaching ballet and waits to see whether Harry will want to follow the same path she did.

Astonish Me follows Joan, Harry, and Jacob until Harry begins to realize his dance talent in his early teens. It's also the story of their neighbor, Chloe, for whom dance is also a passion, and who interacts with their world in more ways than anyone can expect. And as Harry's talent grows, Arslan comes back into Joan's life, threatening to endanger the life she has built away from those memories.

Shipstead is a really good writer, and she clearly knows her stuff regarding dance. This book had the potential to be melodramatic, but despite the slight soap opera-ish nature of the plot, Shipstead avoids the usual traps. The plot isn't necessarily surprising, and I wonder if that is why I didn't find the book particularly compelling. The characters are all flawed but their flaws don't make them more interesting, just idiosyncratic and somewhat unsympathetic.

This is a good book, not a great one, in my opinion, but if you're interested in dance, theater, and the drama that comes with the arts, you may definitely enjoy this.

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