Title: Astonish Me
Author: Maggie Shipstead
Release Date: April 8, 2014
Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Joan knows that a pregnancy is the end of a ballet career, yet she can’t help but be thrilled at the life growing inside her. She turns her back on her world of professional ballet (after all, she knows she will never be good enough to rise to the role of prima ballerina) and her former lover, Arslan, an infamous Russian ballet dancer who defected from Russia with Joan’s help. Joan settles down with her childhood friend Jacob, and together, they raise their son, Harry. But when one of Joan’s students at her ballet school turns out to be an excellent dance, Joan must return to the world she left, knowing people she cares about could get hurt in the process.
Astonish Me is a gorgeous novel about the intricate world of ballet. While the end twist is predictable, this book is about the characters rather than any plot points; readers who enjoy character-driven novels should absolutely pick this up.
Astonish Me is a beautiful novel that plunges the reader into the complex world of a ballerina. Though Joan is ready to leave this life when the novel begins, the book is full of the intricacies and nuances of the ballet scene. Through flashbacks, and later through Joan’s students, the reader is treated to the competitive, backbiting world where every dancer can only look out for him or herself. But there is also beauty in this world; readers will enjoy the grace of this novel as they are immersed in its foreignness.
Joan is an interesting character, and the only person the reader truly comes to know in Astonish Me. It’s her story, after all. She understands the sad truth of her life in the ballet—she simply is not good enough—and looks for something more in life through Jacob and Harry. But, in some ways, Joan knows that the return to the ballet world is inevitable. Readers will enjoy seeing Joan grow and change through her marriage, become more human instead of an ethereal ballet dancer, but ballet will never leave her. The damage that world has done to her—the need to be thin, the inability to bring herself to eat more than a few mouthfuls, the inferiority complex because she was never good enough of a ballet dancer—will always be with Joan.
The ending of Astonish Me is fairly predictable in terms of twists, but one gets the impression that the book isn’t supposed to be a surprise. This is a nuanced emotional, character-driven novel about the way these lives intertwine and how ballet consumes them all. It seems light and effortless, but deep down it harbors dark secrets and character flaws, much like a ballet dancer giving the performance of a lifetime. Shipstead’s portrayal of these characters is honest, and readers will appreciate that she doesn’t shy away from the bad, but allows them to see these people for who they really are.