Synopses & Reviews
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 debut.
"Shipstead's second novel (after Seating Arrangements), set mostly in California and New York in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, concerns Joan Joyce, a ballerina who abandons the dance world when she becomes pregnant. Early in her professional career, she had helped Arslan Rusakov, a famed Russian ballet dancer, defect to the West while his troupe was performing in Toronto, after which the two had an affair. But Joan marries Jacob, a childhood friend, and moves to suburban Southern California, abandoning her glamorous life of concerts and parties in New York City. Their son, Harry, reveals a gift for and a love of ballet, and his talent is such that eventually he comes in contact with Arslan. Their meeting leads to the creation of a ballet that will unite Arslan, Harry, and Harry's girlfriend, Chloe, who is also a dancer, but that threatens to leave Jacob estranged from his son. Shipstead's prose moves fluidly through settings as varied as a ballet rehearsal and a suburban backyard, and her characterizations are full. The story proceeds with a quiet insistence that is matched by the inevitability of its denouement. Agent: Rebecca Gradinger, Fletcher & Co. (Apr.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
“Readers who reveled in Shipstead’s sardonic comedy-of-manners debut will rejoice in the emotionally nuanced tale of barre-crossed lovers and the majestic, mysterious world of professional dance. A supple, daring, and vivid portrait of desire and betrayal.” Booklist (starred review)
“Etonnez-moi, Diaghilev famously challenged Jean Cocteau: ‘Astonish me.’ That’s a fair description of what Maggie Shipstead did to me on nearly every page of this impressive novel. Like its subject, the ballet, this book is intricately choreographed, technically demanding, yet seemingly relaxed, written in a prose of great emotional range and acuity. I will be paying close attention to Shipstead’s career from here on in.” Jeffrey Eugenides
“In this exquisitely rendered story of love, loss, betrayal, secrecy, and artistic ambition, Maggie Shipstead takes hold of the reader and doesn't let go. Astonish Me is a haunting, powerful novel.” Dani Shapiro
“Maggie Shipstead’s prose is so graceful and muscular, so dazzling, so sure-handed and fearless, that at times I had to remind myself to breathe. Astonish Me is a treasure of small surprises.” Maria Semple
“Flawless....Tightly choreographed....Shipstead gains entry into exclusive worlds and trains her opera glasses on private social rituals, as well as behind-the-scenes hanky panky....Similar to classic ballet, the power of Astonish Me arises out of the pairing of a melodramatic storyline with scrupulously executed range of movement....Shipstead sweeps you into this insider world of sweat, narcissism, and short-lived magic....Transcendent.” Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“Deeply engrossing....Dazzles with vivid imagery and startling turns of phrase....Like the prima ballerina at the heart of the novel itself, Shipstead delivers a glorious story that does exactly what it says it will....A deeply thoughtful meditation on the relentless pursuit of perfection and just how far we’re willing to go for love....Proves that Shipstead’s star is still on the rise as she pushes herself to exhilarating new heights....As nuanced and delightful as any reader could ever hope for a book to be.” BookPage
“Dazzling....Maggie Shipstead’s thrilling second book, Astonish Me, is an homage to, and exposé of, the exhilarating, punishing world of ballet; it’s also a searing rumination on insecurity, secrecy, and friendship....Shipstead nails the details of being perpetually en pointe: the adrenaline rush after a performance, the intimate atmosphere of the dressing room, the nagging feelings of inadequacy, the erotically charged and emotionally cruel competitiveness, and the inability to shake perfectionism long after retirement. Like a brilliant choreographer, she has masterminded a breathtaking work of art.” O Magazine
“Impressively sure-footed....Shipstead’s new novel, Astonish Me, swaps the privileged world of private-school prepsters that populated her best-selling debut, Seating Arrangements, for the equally rarefied realm of professional ballet—brilliantly exposing its dark, slavish underbelly with insight and panache....Shipstead’s handling of her characters is supple and satisfying. The triumphs and mistakes they make onstage mirror the movements and missteps they make offstage.” Elle
“Like watching a lone skater glide across a barely frozen lake, the immaculate pirouettes and pliés that make up Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me thrill in their precarious perfection....Shipstead’s insights into human nature take center stage. The story’s surprisingly satisfying outcome encourages us to accept imperfection and even take refuge in doing so: granting not just permission to allow the ice to crack, but to force it to.” Nylon Magazine
“Explosive....Shipstead moves her story back and forth in time with the same seamless precision found in the details of a beautiful ballet, capturing the brutality of the training, the impossible perfection on stage, and the messy fallout that erupts when personal and professional lines blur.” Library Journal
About the Author
Maggie Shipstead was born in 1983 and grew up in Orange County, California. Her highly acclaimed debut novel, Seating Arrangements, was a national best seller and the winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize as well as a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford. In winter 2012, she was a resident at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Tin House, The Paris Review Daily, The Virginia Quarterly Review, American Short Fiction, The Best American Short Stories,and elsewhere. Her story "La Moretta" was a 2012 National Magazine Award finalist.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead’s first novel since her award-winning, national best-selling debut, Seating Arrangements.
1. What does “Astonish me” mean, as a metaphor in the novel?
2. Who is the main character? Is that person also the hero?
3. Shipstead skips forward and backward in time throughout the novel. How does she use these leaps to fill in the story?
4. “Elaine ingests a steady but restricted diet of cocaine without apparent consequence. The key, she has said to Joan, is control. Control is the key to everything.” (page 8) What does Elaine mean by “control”? Which characters in the novel lose control, and to what effect?
5. Jacob wants to live “an intentional life” but doesn’t really know what he intends. The dancers have been taught that “going through the motions” is preferable (page 42). What role does intent really play in their lives? How does this connect to the notion of control?
6. And how does the perfectionism required of ballet dancers play into intent and control?
7. On page 54, Jacob tells Joan, “Every family has a mythology.” What is his mythology for their family? How does Joan’s secret endanger it?
8. Is Joan’s aggressive pursuit of Arslan out of character for her? Why does she do it?
9. Throughout the novel, characters wonder why Arslan chose Joan to help him defect. Why do you think he chose her?
10. How does Sandy shape her daughter’s future? What effect does her behavior at Disneyland have?
11. “I think things can be true even if they didn’t really happen,” Jacob says on page 144. What does he mean by this? How does it play out in his family’s life?
12. When Joan says to Chloe, “Ballet isn’t about you” (page 180), what does she mean? If ballet requires losing oneself, how does it also lead to selfish behavior off-stage?
13. Jacob adored Joan from childhood; Harry adored Chloe from childhood. How else does the younger generation resemble the older one? How do they differ?
14. Why do Harry’s feelings for Chloe change?
15. Discuss the roles of nature vs. nurture. Which is more important in Harry’s life? What about for Chloe?
16. What does “parent” mean, in terms of the novel? Which characters make good parents?
17. What is the metaphor of Emma Livry, the ballet dancer whose tutu catches fire?
18. Shipstead shows us how Jacob reacts to Ludmilla’s phone call, but we don’t see Harry’s reaction. How do you imagine it went?
19. What does Rodina, the title of Arslan and Chloe’s ballet, mean? (In Russia, it refers to “motherland.”)
20. Do you think Jacob decides to stay through the end of the performance?
21. What do we learn from section V? How does it affect your understanding of the novel?