Published by HarperCollins Publishers on April 8th 2014
Genres: Fiction, General, Literary
I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Astonish Me is the irresistible story of Joan, a young American dancer who helps a Soviet ballet star, the great Arslan Rusakov, defect in 1975. A flash of fame and a passionate love affair follow, but Joan knows that, onstage and off, she is destined to remain in the shadows. After her relationship with Arslan sours, Joan decides to make a new life for herself. She quits ballet, marries a good man, and settles into the rhythm of Californian life with their son, Harry. But as the years pass, Joan comes to understand that ballet isn’t finished with her yet: for there is no mistaking that Harry is a prodigy. Inevitably Joan is soon pulled back into a world she thought she’d left behind and back to Arslan.
Ugh. That blurb makes this book sound terrible to me. I promise you, it’s not. I picked up this book on NetGalley only because I knew (vaguely) who Maggie Shipstead was, because I had (kind of) wanted to read her largely celebrated debut novel, Seating Arrangements. I still haven’t read Seating Arrangements. I probably will.
Anyway, Astonish Me is not a love story, per se, but it does concern itself with the inner lives of a number of people. In this way it is a character study, with professional ballet as the backdrop. While there is action, it happens quietly almost as an aside, to better showcase the characters. I’ve never done ballet so I’m sure that I missed out on a lot of thrill that readers who have an intense interest in dance may have gotten from this novel. I can’t speak to how close to reality the situations that the characters find themselves in are, but everything that happened seemed at least plausible.
The prose is simple, yet elegant it’s told with an omniscient voice but switches the character it is focused on fairly often. Because of this device it is sometimes difficult to figure out which characters and central and which are not. True, it is primarily Joan’s story, but the reader is given insight into characters, like Elaine, Joan’s one-time professional ballet roommate who while she is necessary for action in the story otherwise seems to be a peripheral character.
Many reviewers complain that this book is not long enough. I agree. Shipstead could have fleshed out her characters more, she was on the road for greatness and had she done that with this novel she could have rivaled J.K. Rowling or John Irving. All the characters had plenty of story left to tell, many idiosyncratic traits left to discover. Maybe next time.
The ending, while some of it not unexpected is appropriate and satisfying.
I’d recommend it for people who generally enjoy character studies or those with a strong interest in the world of professional ballet.