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