There’s something so enchanting about the world of the ballet. Perhaps it’s all the grit that lies beneath the pink tulle, the way that something that looks so graceful can require so much pain. And for those of us who do not have the physical fortitude to dance our way into that world, Maggie Shipstead’s novel Astonish Me is as good a substitute as any. Upon completing the novel, I felt as though I were resurfacing from a world in which I actually knew how a ballet company works and what a pas de deux might be. It’s almost a disappointment to come back to reality, where dashing male ballet dancers are not daringly defecting from the Soviet Union.
And perhaps it’s that part of the plot that will captivate you at first, but Shipstead introduces subplots in the novel that leave the reader pondering some of the uneasy complications of life. For one, the protagonist, Joan, gave up her life for ballet only to find out that she would never be good enough for the real spotlight. Finding out that even at what we might do best, our passions, we do not measure up is a bitter pill to swallow and often many people’s biggest fears. To see it manifest itself here is fascinating, as Joan gives up her life and her one-sided love affair with a man who really does command the spotlight for a suburban life that doesn’t seem to quite fit her. This, too, touches on the common fear of “settling” that plagues many people. Furthermore, Joan’s husband seems increasingly uncertain about his position in her life, offering yet another perspective on human relationships—the uncertainty of a partner’s love. And as Joan’s neighbor watches her wiry body glide about as she performs her routine ballet stretches in the backyard of her suburban, Southern Californian home, we get a glimpse of the very-human envy of a middle aged woman feeling unattractive and insecure as she compares herself to a female peer. This is what gives Shipstead’s novel its unique charm, its extra layer that allows it to linger in the memory of its readers long after the books has been safely deposited back on the shelf. Because many of us may know nothing of the world of ballet, but the human emotions and relationships in the novel are universal.
Shipstead is an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate who wields her pen with obvious skill. She does not embellish where unnecessary but her writing is not sparse either. It is rich enough to hold a reader’s attention and sustain their delight. In that respect, she is reminiscent of the minimalist darling, Raymond Carver. By the time the last page is turned, you feel as though you have been taken on an exhausting emotional journey, one that has given you a distinct understanding of the characters she has created. Rarely do pen-and-ink people come so alive, and sustain emotions so real and so bittersweet as in Astonish Me.
To put this book down is a challenge, unless if only for a moment, to look up tickets to the next ballet.
Author: Maggie Shipstead
Publication Date: April 2014
Reviewer: Sarisha Kurup is a senior at The Harker School in San Jose, CA.