Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

February 19, 2015 Reviews 11

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

This book may be unsuitable for people under 17 years of age due to its use of sexual content, drug and alcohol use, and/or violence.
Astonish Me by Maggie ShipsteadAstonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Narrator: Rebecca Lowman
Series: Stand Alone
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Random House Audio on April 4, 2014
Genres: Historical, Romance
Pages: 272
Length: 10 hours 10 minutes
Format: Audiobook
Source: Publisher

From the author of the widely acclaimed debut novel Seating Arrangements, winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize: a gorgeously written, fiercely compelling glimpse into the passionate, political world of professional ballet and its magnetic hold over two generations.

Astonish Me is the irresistible story of Joan, a ballerina whose life has been shaped by her relationship with the world-famous dancer Arslan Ruskov, whom she helps defect from the Soviet Union to the United States. While Arslan's career takes off in New York, Joan's slowly declines, ending when she becomes pregnant and decides to marry her longtime admirer, a PhD student named Jacob. As the years pass, Joan settles into her new life in California, teaching dance and watching her son, Harry, become a ballet prodigy himself. But when Harry's success brings him into close contact with Arslan, explosive secrets are revealed that shatter the delicate balance Joan has struck between her past and present.

In graceful, inimitable prose, Shipstead draws us into an extraordinary world, and the lives of her vivid and tempestuous characters. Filled with intrigue, brilliant satire, and emotional nuance, Astonish Me is a superlative follow-up to Shipstead's superb début.

Oh gosh. This is such a hard review to write because I can’t stop thinking about how it ended. And I can’t talk to you about that too specifically, since that would be one hell of a spoiler. I think the only thing is to explain how the ending made me feel.

In Astonish Me, Joan (the main character) tries to describe the word “exquisite” to a dancer learning English as a third language. She talks about the perfect beauty of a dancing ballerina, how it’s so perfect it’s painful. That’s the ending of Astonish Me. Its abrupt, but perfectly so, because saying more would ruin the way it hangs with emotion and the poignancy of all it means (and has meant). It’s exquisite.

You’d think with how I just described the ending that Astonish Me would be a five star read. But as much as it sucked me in during the last 25%, I struggled to get to that point. The problem with Astonish Me is that you have to be patient. It jumps you around a lot between time periods (ranging from 1970s – 2002ish) and view points. Just when you get committed to one part of the story, you’re removed from it and placed in another. Its not until the last 25% that all the threads start to really come together into a clear picture. Once it does, good luck putting it down.

It entertains the whole time though, as long as you’re willing to go along for the ride. I grabbed Astonish Me because I love dance and have always been enthralled by the way movement can make a person feel so much. I never dreamed of being a dancer or anything – that was never in this clumsy giant’s cards. But the life of a ballet dancer is so mesmerizing, because ballet is so often a cruel lover for dancers. And Astonish Me captured that love, pain, and heartbreak of a life in ballet beautifully.

Maggie Shipstead clearly knows ballet well, because the dances came to life in her words (though I do think knowing ballet terms really helped me appreciate the movement. I don’t know what it would be like if you don’t know them) and the narrator, Rebecca Lowman, did the words justice, providing the perfect rhythm. The variety of characters provided a challenging set of accents, but I thought Rebecca Lowman pulled them off really well. She did take some getting used to, because she speaks softly and slowly, but after I got used to her and the book, I felt she was a perfect fit.

Astonish Me is about so much more than dance, though. It takes place haphazardly during the late 60s to about 2002. There are two generations of dancers whose lives are tangled together through more than dance, but through life, love, and heartbreak. The characters feel so damn real – I actually want to look up the situations from this book and see how much really happened. It’s not described as a biographical fiction, but I believed these characters, with their flaws and insecurities and passions, so intensely it’s hard to imagine they aren’t out there somewhere.

The author did a really fantastic job weaving in generational moments that appear in your history books and showing the way they impacted these dancers world. The role of the cold war was shocking and exciting, as much as the shock of AIDS was devastating and poignant (sorry to keep using that word, but I can’t find another one that works as well for me).

By the end, I felt like Astonish Me had actually been a dance made up of beautiful, disconnected acts, tied together in a shocking, poignant, and a bit devastating way. Not a feel good book, but one that is sure to make any dance lover FEEL the full range of emotions.

4 stars Pretty Great

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About Maggie Shipstead

Maggie Shipstead is the author of two novels: Astonish Me and Seating Arrangements, which won the Dylan Thomas Prize and the L.A. Times Book Prize for First Fiction.

She is a graduate of Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. Her writing has appeared in many publications including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New Republic, Tin House, and The Best American Short Stories. “La Moretta,” a story published in VQR, was a National Magazine Award finalist. She lives in Los Angeles.


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About Berls
Berls has been a book lover her whole life. She reads pretty much every genre and is currently working hard at making her childhood dream of becoming an author come true. She loves sharing her thoughts about books, blogging, and just random fun stuff. She's a challenge and read-a-thon junkie, so it's no wonder that she loves co-hosting the COYER reading challenge. Leave a comment, Berls is always happy to chat!

11 Responses to “Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead”

  1. Bookworm Brandee

    I love your description of how Shipstead describes dance, Berls. I am really captivated by dance – not just ballet. (probably because I’m not such a good dancer either 😉 This sounds like it is a lovely read. I’m going to go out on a limb and say I’d probably enjoy it more if I read it, as opposed to listening to it, since it skips around and changes POV as you said. But this one will go on my tbr.
    Bookworm Brandee recently posted…Blitz & Giveaway ~ Broken Souls ~ Laurie OlerichMy Profile

  2. Michelle

    Good for you for sticking it out till the end. That happened to me with Don’t You forget about me. The books was a little weird and dragging but the end was all WOW. Why couldn’t the entire book be like this? This one sounds interesting but I know you struggled I have a feeling even with an awesome ending I would bail so Next chat tell me all about it!!!!
    Great Review! 🙂
    Michelle recently posted…My Top Ten Apps I CANNOT live without! #BRTopTenMy Profile

  3. Katherine

    My husband and I were talking the other day about the first Olympics when the Soviet Union fell and when someone from there won they raised the Olympic flag and played the Olympic anthem and just how sad the whole thing seemed. This kind of feeds into that somewhat. This sounds like quite a read. Great review! I’ll definitely be looking for this one.
    Katherine recently posted…Ladle to the Grave – Blog Tour Review + GiveawayMy Profile

    • Berls

      Oh yeah, this definitely feeds into that – the way athletes (dancers specifically) played into and were impacted by the cold war was really striking in this book. I hope you enjoy it!

  4. Ramona

    Haven’t read it, but with a tile like that and especially after reading your review, it goes right at the top of my pile. Sounds different and wonderful. Thanks for sharing it, Berls!
    Ramona recently posted…Abridged BooksMy Profile

    • Berls

      It really was very different from the norm, and in a good way. If you read it, you’ll have to let me know what you think – I do think you’d enjoy it.

    • Berls

      Yeah it took me a while to get used to how all over it was. But I was mesmerized by the dancing and Gah! That ending!

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