Monday, April 13, 2015

Astonish Me, by Maggie Shipstead

"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 background. She will never possess Arslan, and she will never be a prima ballerina. She will rise no higher than the corps, one dancer among many.
After her relationship with Arslan sours, Joan plots to make a new life for herself. She quits ballet, marries a good man, and settles in California with him and 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. Through Harry, Joan is pulled back into a world she thought she’d left behind—back into dangerous secrets, and back, inevitably, to Arslan."
-From the Hardcover edition, at least according to Powell's website 
Sorry for the blurb, but this isn't an easy book to sum up! It's the kind of novel you'd call "sweeping," as it follows Joan for over two decades from one side of the US to the other, flashing forward and back in time, with chapters narrated by over half a dozen characters. There's so much to say, so let's start with ballet.

I tend to enjoy books about dance (well, I can think of a whopping two novels I've read on the subject, including this one and excluding Sweet Valley Twins #2: Teacher's Pet, but I liked both of them). They're inspiring in a weird way; I guess it's fun to read about the crazy-long hours practicing in dance studios from the comfort of my couch. It's satisfying, like watching a training montage in a film. But I digress. I loved reading about all the dance and it's put me in the mood to watch any and all documentaries out there on the subject, as I find it fascinating. Astonish Me gives us several perspectives on the dance world, starting with Joan, a ballerina coming to terms with the fact that she'll never be truly great. Then there's her roommate Elaine, who would never so much as contemplate leaving the dance world. Their friendship is one of my favorite parts of the novel, by the way. Shipstead adds in so many of the layers that make up a decades-long friendship: the small resentments, the familiarity that changes as two friends' lives diverge dramatically...I really loved this aspect of the story. We later get chapters from the points of view of Harry, Joan's son, who grows into a ballet prodigy, and from Chloe, Harry's best friend and dance partner, and finally from Arslan, Joan's enigmatic Russian former lover. (Whew. You see how this is a hard book to sum up?! Also, I definitely just typed his name as "Aslan," which would make for a very different story!)

Shipstead's strength is in her characters. As I listened to the book (had to go for audio rather than physical with this one), I found myself hating a character one chapter and rooting for them the next. Everyone is allowed complexity and no one behaves well all the time. The characters in this book do some truly awful things to each other, but I found I could never really condemn them for it. They were so well developed and just human that by the end of the book I felt completely wrung out. It's not the most pleasant sensation but I find it takes a writer at the top of their game to make me feel so deeply. It was more than enough to help me look past a few slightly soap opera-ish developments toward the end. I'll definitely be watching to see what Maggie Shipstead comes back with next.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Persona, by Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine's book The Girls at the Kingfisher Club was one of my favorite reads last year, so I was pretty damn excited for her newest offering, Persona. And there's so much to like! A plethora of the elusive Strong Female Character! Like pretty much no white main characters, but rather Actual Diversity! Women helping women! And so many ambiguous characters; oh, my heart could sing! Love me an ambiguous character.

Except my overall feeling upon finishing the book was "...meh." What?!

So let's break down where things went south for me. Because all that great stuff I mentioned? Is really great. One of our two narrators is Suyana Sapaki, the Face for the United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation in the International Assembly. Faces are pretty much exactly what they sound like--they represent their countries, but have basically no power to make decisions themselves. From page one, Suyana chafes in her position. She's smart and she genuinely cares about her country. Even with all the bullshit she has to put up with--even her own romantic relationships must be under contract for political gain--she still sees the value of showing up to vote and be counted. Even when she's told how to vote. She has so many humiliations to endure, from being all dolled up by her Handler (again, just what it sounds like) to try to entice the American Face into a romantic contract with her, to being dressed in hideous quasi-tribal garb that's supposed to represent her culture but is just super racist. Neat. And then, on top of it all, someone goes and tries to  kill her.

This is when we meet Narrator #2, Daniel, a photographer. He's trying to become a "snap," the paparazzi of this world, and has been tailing Suyana in hopes of getting some shots of her and the American Face together for the first time. Instead, he witnesses the shooting, and, to his own annoyance, can't resist helping Suyana escape. He winds up torn between a real growing respect for her and his own selfish desire to follow this story as it develops without revealing to her who and what he really is. I enjoyed Daniel overall. I like some good internal turmoil and it's always kind of fun to watch an essentially decent character have to do some shitty things and live with themselves. So well played, Persona.

As for Suyana, she's constantly forced to decide who to trust. Her default is pretty much "no one," but she turns out to be surprised a few times. There's some excellent interaction between her and some of the other Faces, all women, but this is also where things started to fall apart for me. Because I wanted MORE. We kept sidling up to these secondary characters and getting these glimpses of fascinating complexity but then Suyana would have to go on the run again and their storylines would just be dropped, with the briefest of mentions at the end. MORE GRACE/MARTINE/KIPA, PLEASE.

And it wasn't just them; the book kept dropping vague mentions of past events--what happened to Hakan, Suyana's previous Handler, how she wound up involved with the ecoterrorist group Chordata and developed her relationship with her contact Zenaida, Daniel's past...I mean, it's all technically explained, but it felt underdeveloped to me. We kept getting short flashbacks or Daniel or Suyana would have a brief memory that hinted at what happened and I'd sort of gloss over it, honestly, assuming we'd get the story in full later. This might be my failure as a reader but this is also a fairly fast-paced book so I wasn't doing the closest of reading here. By the end I felt a bit unsatisfied, like I'd missed a big chunk in the middle. It's not the worst criticism ever, wanting more of the story, but I think it will keep this book from having much staying power with me.