Maggie Shipstead - Astonish Me (3 stars)

Maggie Shipstead - Astonish Me

An impressive and compelling glimpse into the demanding world of professional ballet

Maggie Shipstead’s acclaimed debut novel, Seating Arrangements, was a personal highlight of 2013. A taut, deftly plotted satire of wealth and family, it skewered New England society while also creating enough depth and humour to keep the narrative compelling and affecting.

With Astonish Me, Shipstead has once again used a tight plot and elegant structure to ensure an enjoyable and gripping read. The story takes place in an equally constrained environment: the highly competitive world of ballet. In 1975, Joan, an ambitious if not accomplished American dancer, becomes involved in a plan to help a talented soviet ballet dancer, Arslan Rusakov, defect. Short-lived fame and a passionate love affair with Rusakov follow, but as the love sours, Joan leaves ballet behind, marrying a childhood sweetheart. Moving on with her husband and son, Joan’s ballet career recedes into the past. That is until her son, Henry, shows a natural and undeniable talent for dance, pulling Joan back into a world she thought she had left behind.

Astonish Me is an impressive novel; it is both well written and well crafted despite a strange, melodramatic and completely unsurprising ‘twist’. It is also a graceful read. Told in short, tight chapters from different perspectives it is almost a performance in itself, the narrative arching and releasing, pulling the reader in and then deftly excluding them from movements backstage.

However, at times this stylish execution sidelines more compelling stories while allowing lesser ones too much time centre stage. Joan and Arslan’s romance, for instance, isn’t particularly interesting; much more engaging is the one between her ex-roommate, Elaine, and Mr K, the artistic director. This sexless union provides far more passion, truth and depth than Joan and Arslan could muster. If Shipstead had given this relationship more space, Astonish Me could have told a different kind of story: a far edgier, riskier, and perhaps, more involving one.

Although Astonish Me might not have the depth of feeling as Shipstead’s debut, it is a compelling and beautiful story of ambition and desire, of the questionable things people do to attain greatness, and of the consequences of these actions for all those involved.

Published by Blue Door/HarperCollins, out now.

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