Tag Archives: Maggie Shipstead

ASTONISH ME by Maggie Shipstead

Last summer, I read an entertaining satire called Seating Arrangements about WASPs misbehaving – badly – at a summer wedding in New England. I just finished a second book by Shipstead called Astonish Me, and I can’t believe they are by the same author. I liked both books, but Astonish Me has such a different tone and purpose to it that I finished it blown away by Shipstead’s range and talent.

Astonish Me is a book about ballet. It spans three decades and two coasts, but it’s really about seven people, six of which are professional ballerinas. Joan, a New York City ballet company dancer in the late 70s, has a brief but life-changing interaction with famous Russian dancer Arlsan Rusakof after a performance in Paris. Arslan corresponds with Joan after he returns to Russia and she moves to New York, and she ultimately helps him defect by driving the getaway car to the U.S. after he performs months later in Canada. This kicks off a brief, imbalanced relationship between the two that dies out when Arslan’s former girlfriend, another prima ballerina, also defects and joins the ballet.

Joan later gets pregnant and leaves ballet to marry her high school best friend, a safe, nice guy named Jacob. They move to Southern California and raise their son Harry, 3,000 miles away from Arslan and the dance world Joan has left behind. As Harry grows up and ultimately develops his own interest in dance, Joan finds herself pulled back into the professional dance world and the complicated relationships she had left in her past.

I am a ballet mom – I have two nine year-old girls who have danced in four Nutcrackers and two other full-length ballets with the Washington Ballet. I’ve also seen a lot of ballet (like Shipstead, my mother started taking me to the ballet when I was “a little squirt”).  I spend a lot of the time I’m watching the performance thinking about the dancers – their relationships with each other, how they feel about the principals, what it’s like to be in the company, what they do in their free time. So on that level, I found Astonish Me to be very interesting. Shipstead is a precise, efficient writer, astute in her observations about relationships and expert in shifting decades, settings, and perspectives. The plot of Astonish Me unfolded slowly, teasingly, making me want to keep reading. I wasn’t crazy about the plot device that brought all the characters together at the end; I felt that it only highlighted the implausibility of some of the relationships in the book. But it didn’t detract from the power of the rest of the book and the insight it provided into ballet and those who devote their lives to it. While Seating Arrangements is light and funny, Astonish Me is serious and intense. Seating Arrangements is satire, while Astonish Me contains great empathy for its characters.

I listened to the first two-thirds of Astonish Me on audio and read the rest. The narrator – Rebecca Lowman – was perfect for the book: precise, intense, but somewhat unemotional, like some of the characters in the book. I really enjoyed the audio version and only switched to print because I was on vacation with the family and wanted to finish the book. I highly recommend the audio performance.

All right, Maggie Shipstead, what’s next? I will be eagerly waiting.

Related: 51 Things Only Ballet Dancers Understand


If you like books about WASPs misbehaving, then I have a summer read for you. Take a second house in New England, a blue blood wedding, a bunch of Harvard finals clubs alums, and an exploding dead whale, and mix it all with a generous splash of gin and tonic, and you have Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead.

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
Seating Arrangements is about the Van Meter family: Winn, wife Biddie, and daughters Daphne and Livia. (The names alone!) Daphne, who is seven months pregnant, is marrying Greyson Duff, the most eligible of the four sons of Dickie and Maude Duff, on the island where her parents have a home. Other than the matter of the pregnancy, it is the perfect WASP wedding of two unobjectionable and attractive, if dull, twentysomethings. Yet going in to the wedding weekend, all is not right. Winn is obsessed with the golf club on the island that refuses to admit him despite his Harvard pedigree. His daughter Livia, who recently terminated an unplanned pregnancy and was broken up with by her college boyfriend, is resentful and unhappy due to her recent traumas. And the flirtations of one of Daphne’s bridesmaids’ with the father of the bride are becoming more and more brazen.

Oh, the drama. Over the course of the weekend, many sins are committed: infidelity, breaking and entering, assault and battery, as well as inappropriate hookups and shockingly bad wedding toasts and lots and lots of drinking. Yes, it’s all in good fun, but ultimately, I read Seating Arrangements as a rather sharp satire of the lives of this demographic. None of the characters in this book is particularly likeable. The least offensive is bridesmaid Dominique, the most level-headed of the bunch and the only one who seems to think about anyone other than him or herself. From her on comes a parade of self-absorption, selfishness, lack of empathy, and pretentiousness, the worst of all being Winn, who may be one of the more unlikeable characters I have come across in recent memory.

But Seating Arrangements is funny and well-written. Although the story drags at times, I liked the minutiae of detail around the wedding itself and the rituals and complications that always surround them. I listened to Seating Arrangements on audio, and the narration by Arthur Morey was a great match – patrician, precise, exasperated, and, well, WASPy-sounding. Morey made a perfect Winn – I worry I might have actually liked him more as a character with a different narrator.

Seating Arrangements isn’t for everyone. I suspect that if you’ve made it this far in this review, you will be able to predict with some certainty whether you’ll like this book. I did, and am glad I read it.