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.

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