July 10, 2014

Review: Astonish Me

Astonish Me By Maggie Shipstead
Available now from Knopf (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I have trouble resisting novels about ballet.  As far as literary ballet novels go, I prefer THE CRANES DANCE by Meg Howrey.  However, ASTONISH ME does have quite a bit to offer.

In a series of vignette-like chapters, ASTONISH ME covers a few decades in the life of Joan, her husband, her son, their neighbors, and Arslan Rusakov, a dance who Joan helped defect from Russia.  Their lives come together and fall apart, the tangle more complicated than it first appears.

As short as ASTONISH ME is, there are still some subplots I wish had been cut.  For instance, the neighboring wife and mother has a chapter of narration that's everything people mock about literary fiction: brutal observations about every character, some musings on the banality of suburban life, cheating.  It does have consequences on her daughter Chloe, one of the book's many ballerinas, but none that couldn't have been accomplished in a more interesting way.

I also found ASTONISH ME disappointing as a dance novel.  Many of the characters are passionate about dance, and that felt true.  But there's no sense of the pain in their bodies.  Their dances are sketched out, but never came to life for me.  The climatic ballet left me cold.  It felt like a piece of stuntcasting, everything the characters tried to promise it wasn't.

At the same time, Maggie Shipstead's writing is wonderful.  It has a beautiful flow to it.  For instance, I love how she describes the instant one character realizes how arrogant he used to be, upon being faced with an ex-girlfriend, or how she describes the anger in Chloe.  I liked seeing the pieces of the past and the present come together, as the story is told nonlinear-ly.  But I felt like the ending was rushed, with a central relationship coming out of nowhere and everything coming to a head when previously the book just moseyed along.  ASTONISH ME could've had a bit more balance by cutting out some of the beginning and giving more time to the end.

I'd be willing to read another book by Shipstead, since she clearly has talent, but ASTONISH ME felt a bit paint by numbers.


  1. It's always frustrating when a book disappoints us. This one sounded promising.

  2. It's possibly I loved Astonish Me simply because I'm older than you and lived through much of what was fictionalized in the book. Also as a dancer knowing the shorthand and vocabulary of ballet, I could visualize the dances - so perhaps you're right that a reader might have needed more to flesh it all out.

    You have to read "Ballerina" by Edward Stewart if you like ballet books. It's quite overwrought and soapy but infinitely readable. Very different from this, not as literary but a good fun read.

    1. I could visualize the steps, but I had trouble with the tone of the dances and such. For instance, in the ending ballet, there is a husband figure, but what he's doing is never mentioned.

    2. Oh I see what you mean. Yes, it's really hard to "write" ballet. The few times I have tried to describe a dance or steps, I get so bogged down in all the details. I want to get them technically correct but then maybe the story/theme, etc. gets lost.


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