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Astonish Me

Astonish Me

4.1 20
by Maggie Shipstead

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For years Joan has been trying to forget her past, to find peace and satisfaction in her role as wife and mother. Few in her drowsy California suburb know her thrilling history: as a young American ballerina in Paris, she fell into a doomed, passionate romance with Soviet dance superstar Arslan Rusakov. After playing a leading role in his celebrated defection,


For years Joan has been trying to forget her past, to find peace and satisfaction in her role as wife and mother. Few in her drowsy California suburb know her thrilling history: as a young American ballerina in Paris, she fell into a doomed, passionate romance with Soviet dance superstar Arslan Rusakov. After playing a leading role in his celebrated defection, Joan bowed out of the spotlight for good, heartbroken by Arslan and humbled by her own modest career.
But when her son turns out to be a ballet prodigy, Joan is pulled back into a world she thought she'd left behind—a world of dangerous secrets, of Arslan, and of longing for what will always be just out of reach.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.)
From the Publisher
“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

“This is a novel you must read. . . Shipstead still has her flawless sense of timing and a sensitive ear for the muffled flutterings of hope and desire . . . Intensely compelling. . . Shipstead has captured the mercurial flow of artistic genius, the way it sanctifies some lives even as it condemns others, all of them stretching toward that perfect beauty just out of reach.”
—Ron Charles, Washington Post 

“Elegant and forceful . . . Vivid and convincing . . . Bold and thrilling . . . As in ballet, some of the drama is slyly withheld offstage, heightening the suspense, so the narrative unfolds in choreographed bursts of precision and exuberance . . . The way the characters come together in new and surprising pairings is one of the book’s many pleasures, and it sets the stage for a cruel, but inevitable heartbreak.”
Boston Globe 

“Sardonic and insightful . . . Shipstead has admirably absorbed ballet’s vocabulary of steps . . . She does caustic humor, simmering hostilities, and social envy well . . . The novel’s most fascinating relationship is . . . between Elaine and Mr. K—a nearly two-decade push-pull of artistic need, devotion, and dependency, a partnership that, as Elaine matures, transforms from something seemingly reckless into a bond that is deep, tender, and rare.”
New York Times Book Review

“Gripping . . . Effectively dramatizes the tensions between family and career, perfectionism and compromise . . . Shipstead rises to the challenge of evoking the excitement of dance, and her descriptions are all the more powerful for emphasizing the hard work behind the grace.”    
The New Yorker 

“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.”

“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.”

“Dispels any idea that Shipstead is some kind of one-trick preppy . . . Nearly every sentence here lands with a bull’s-eye thwock of emotional truth, and the inner lives of her characters feel as real and immediate as the shifting settings they inhabit . . . Shipstead’s youth may be a talking point, but her talent transcends it. She’s astonishing. Grade: A-.”
Entertainment Weekly

“Graceful . . . Electrifying . . . Moves nimbly through time and points of view . . . Shipstead depicts the physical sacrifice of dancers without romanticism or pity . . . Highly artful, and insightful too . . . Spins a new fantasy based on an already fantastical realm . . . Astonish Me shines.”
San Francisco Chronicle 

“A grand arabesque into the world of dance . . . Shisptead isn’t interested in the straightforward answers . . . [She] succeeds at capturing the messy, intimate drama of domesticity: furtive glances exchanged over dinner tables, after-hours pillow talk, the different breeds of jealousy that lurk among friends, lovers, rivals, and spouses . . . By studying how Joan, Arslan, and other satellite characters orbit around one another, the book examines the lengths people go to (or don’t) to be perfect . . . Thrilling.”
TIME Magazine

“Full of the kind of prose you want to curl up and nest in like a cat: seamless and full of small elegances . . . Showcase[s] Shipstead’s immense talent for observation . . . Shipstead creates this book slowly and artfully like a pastry chef. It’s a lemon tart of a book, lovely and neat . . . Reading Astonish Me, I didn’t need to be astonished. I was happy.”
“Accomplished . . . Immersive . . . Shipstead’s astute, nimble writing barely misses a beat . . . The fragility and shifting dependency of relationships are scrupulously exposed . . . This is a bravura display of high-performance art, the only constant its quest for perfection.”
The Guardian 

“Quietly mesmerizing . . . Sharp and memorable . . . Like the ballet she writes about, Shipstead is an elegant writer, nimble and sophisticated . . . Full of the kind of keen observations about people and relationships that made her first book, Seating Arrangements, one of 2012’s most delightful literary surprises . . . Its truths resonate.”
San Diego Union-Tribune 

“Exhilarating . . . Alternates high drama and emotional excess with the small tensions and compromises of everyday life . . . Shipstead displays a wry wit . . . and she recognizes the subtle tones of emotional relationships . . . She is daring enough to hang her plot on a secret that won’t surprise any reader, as if she’s shaping the novel like a dance, in which plot is either obvious or irreverent. The shock is that it works. Her characters are so compelling that the melodrama they are collectively performing can’t overshadow the details that make them seem alive.”
Columbus Dispatch 

“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
“Endlessly fascinating . . . Elegant . . . Keen . . . Spans continents, decades, and generations . . . Familiar from Shipstead’s first novel is her beautiful prose style and incredible knack for social observation . . . A total pleasure to read.”
The Rumpus 

“Nuanced and revealing . . . Marvelously controlled . . . The infused tensions of life in the hothouse of a ballet company are perfectly captured . . . Shipstead is a beautiful writer.”
New York Daily News 

“Shipstead takes readers on a dazzling tour inside the alluring world of professional ballet, a world that is simultaneously exquisite and dangerously cruel. It’s an intoxicating world of art, beauty, sweat, romance, jealousy, and restraint.”

Astonish Me has a kinesthetic energy, not unlike that of a dancer performing . . . An enjoyable meditation not only on ballet, but on desire, ambition, and love.”
Huffington Post

“Thrilling . . . Illuminates the ballet world’s relentless pursuit of perfection . . . equal parts brutality and beauty . . . Shipstead’s characters move in constant, unfolding ensemble with one another. They are staged, in the best sense. Even as their true loves, betrayals, foibles, and triumphs feel inevitable and destined, they also feel bold and true.”
Chapter 16

“Eloquent . . . Fascinating . . . The novel skips back and forth in time from the mid-1970s to the final act in 2002, all the while building tension and exposing secrets . . . Well-drawn and alluring.”
The Missourian 

“The story is riveting, and the reading experience is enhanced by Shipstead’s beautiful prose style and sensitive, emotional nuances throughout.”
Hudson Valley News 

“Impressive . . . This novel is full of delights: those vivid scenes of New York, the evocation of the exigencies of the ballet, a rich sense of how people get along with each other and become serious friends. Maggie Shipstead is a writer to watch.”
Washington Times 

“As a former ballerina, I can’t put down Maggie Shipstead’s new book, Astonish Me.”
—Caitlin Moran 

“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)
“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

“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.”
Publishers Weekly

“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

Library Journal
In the mid-1970s, Joan Joyce embraces the rarefied atmosphere that is the world of ballet. A member of the corps with little hope of gaining stardom, she is launched into the headlines when she helps her lover, the brilliant Russian dancer Arslan Rusakov, defect from the Soviet Union. Their romance flames out as his career soars, and Joan marries her childhood sweetheart, Jacob, raising their son, Harry, and running a dance school in California. Harry and Chloe, the girl next door whom he has loved since as long as he can remember, are both consumed by ballet as they grow up under Joan's tutelage. As Harry's gifts become more apparent, he is brought to the attention of Arslan, with explosive results. VERDICT Recipient of the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for first fiction for Seating Arrangements, 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. Expect renewed interest in her first novel. [See Prepub Alert, 10/28/13.]—Beth Andersen, Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI
Kirkus Reviews
After satirizing privileged WASPs in her prize-winning first novel (Seating Arrangements, 2012), Shipstead investigates another rarefied world: ballet. When we meet Joan in September 1977, she's tired of her going-nowhere career in the ballet corps of a prestigious New York company, where she's primarily known as the discarded lover of star performer Arslan Rusakov. She's also pregnant after a summer visit to Chicago to seduce her high school pal Jacob. The rest of Part I depicts their tense marriage—scarred by Joan's bereavement over leaving ballet—from son Harry's infancy through the mid-1980s. This strong setup is anchored by Shipstead's sensitive portrait of the couple's uneasy relationship and their complex friendship with Southern California neighbors Sandy and Gary Wheelock, whose daughter Chloe is Harry's age. It's a jolt when Part II jumps back to 1973 in Paris, where Joan is transported by Arslan's dancing and "wants some piece of the fearsome beauty he has onstage." We already know she helped him defect from the Soviet Union, so it feels unnecessary to get a detailed account of it and of the subsequent unraveling of their affair in New York, partly because autocratic artistic director Mr. K judges (correctly) that she's not good enough to dance with him. It takes a while for Part III to regain the lost momentum as Chloe and Harry study ballet, he becomes obsessed with his mother's connection to Arslan, and it becomes clear that Harry is a major talent. Anyone who hasn't figured out who Harry's real father is long before the flashback that jarringly opens Part IV simply hasn't been paying attention. Shipstead again recovers in excellent final chapters that allow Chloe to emerge from Harry's shadow, put Harry and Arslan onstage together, and offer tentative hope for Joan and Jacob's battered marriage. But the denouements provided for the novel's many well-drawn characters would be more satisfying if readers hadn't been distracted by flashbacks that serve no compelling artistic purpose. Perceptive and well-written though marred by its peculiar chronology.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage Contemporaries Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.15(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

February 1973—Paris
Joan kneels in a dark box in the third loge of the Palais Garnier, the Opéra, peeping over the red velvet railing. Six rickety chairs stand close around her, but she knows they creak and is careful not to disturb them. The houselights are down, but the glow from the stage picks out a profusion of gilded plasterwork: serene deities, trumpeting angels, lyres, garlands, flowers, oak leaves, masks, Corinthian columns, all deeply shadowed, piling up around the proscenium and among the boxes like the walls of a craggy gold cave, climbing to Chagall’s painted round ceiling of naked angels and voluptuous ballerinas and goats and chickens and lovers and blue Eiffel Tower and red-splotched rendering of the Palais itself. From the center of this hangs the great sleeping chandelier: an enormous gold and glass thistle hung upside down to dry, darkly gleaming.
The Kirov’s orchestra noodles around in the pit, waiting. At stage left, just in from the wings, the young star who has been the subject of so much hubbub stands in a heavy grey sweater, white tights, and thick army-green leg warmers pulled up to his thighs. Joan’s angle is not ideal—she is looking steeply down on him—but he seems too delicate and too boyish to be impressive. Most of the corps girls milling around in black leotards and white practice tutus are taller than he is. The ballerina who is his partner, however, is tiny, like a fairy, and she stands facing away from him, smoking a cigarette in a long white holder and absently blowing rings of smoke. Her head is wrapped in a printed scarf. Rusakov makes one smooth turn around her and plucks the holder from her fingers. He skips backward, puffing and making faces at her. Not taking the bait, she watches impassively, then pivots and disappears into the wings. He tires of his own game at once and presses the cigarette in its holder into the hand of one of the corps girls. She appears terrified by the gift and passes it off to her neighbor, who rushes into the wings after its owner.
Joan is not supposed to be watching the rehearsal, but she can always claim she did not understand the remonstrations of the ballet master. Still, to be safe, she had crept in a back door and made her way higher and higher through the gloomy backstage passages and stairways until she emerged into the third loge, which was quiet and a little musty without crowds of gossiping, mingling Parisians. Its balconies overlook the bronze and marble excess of the grand escalier. There is a curved wall of closed doors, each with a round porthole and leading to a box. She had used an usher’s key, purloined in advance, to open the door of box 11.
Some invisible cue makes the dancers flee the stage and the orchestra collect itself. The conductor lifts his baton, slices down- ward. After a few bars, Rusakov launches out from the wings. He has shed the leg warmers and sweater, and his body, in tights and T-shirt, is perfectly proportioned, muscled but not bulky. His legs appear longer than they are; his ass is round and high. Rumor has it that the Kirov won’t cast him as a romantic lead because he is small, preferring to use him as Ali the slave boy or the Bluebird or the Golden Idol, but his stage presence is aggressive and masculine, arrogant. He has arched, almost pointed eyebrows and very dark eyes that bounce imperiously off the empty theater. At first the raked French stages had given Joan trouble. She would migrate toward the pit on her turns, earning a few kicks from the next girl in line. But the stages in Russia are raked, too, and Rusakov shows no discomfort as he flutters downstage, hooking his body from side to side in a series of brisés volés. Another rumor is that he bleaches his hair to look more Russian, less Tatar, and the contrast of his feathered blond mop against his olive skin and black, restless eyes is striking.
The choreography is old-fashioned, but as Rusakov circles the stage doing high, perfect coupés jetés en tournant, his technique is not fusty but pure. His movements are quick but unhurried, impossible in their clarity and difficulty and extraordinary in how they seem to burst from nowhere, without any apparent effort or preparation. But the beauty of Arslan’s dancing is not what moves Joan to cry in her red velvet aerie: it is a dream of perfection blowing through the theater. She has been dancing since before her fifth birthday, and she realizes that the beauty radiating from him is what she has been chasing all along, what she has been trying to wring out of her own inadequate body. Forgetting herself, she leans out over the railing, wanting to get closer. Étonnez-moi, Diaghilev had said to his dancers in the Ballets Russes. Astonish me.
As Rusakov executes a final leap offstage and the music abruptly ends, the silence that follows is an injustice. Someone starts shouting in Russian. It is the artistic director. He leaps from his seat and charges up the aisle, bellowing. Rusakov reappears, his face blank. He listens to the harangue but does not nod, only stares at his slip- pers. Without waiting for the other man to finish, he stalks to the back of the stage, and with no music except the lone, rising, furious voice, comes whirling forward in the fastest chain of steps Joan has ever seen. Each step leads inexorably and precisely into the next. Nearly in the pit, he stops and holds an arabesque, all his momentum falling away, leaving a flawless statue. Then he spits and walks offstage. A deeper silence than before follows. Joan looks up at Chagall’s angels. Their fleshy wings are like those of penguins, more like fins than tools of flight. As she gets to her feet, she bumps into the chairs, making a clatter, but she doesn’t look back to see if anyone has heard.
Behind a curtain, the box has a small antechamber with crimson damask walls, coat hooks, a mirror with a wooden shelf beneath it, and a small velvet fainting couch, also red. She sits on this couch in the dark and snuffles, wiping her face with her hands. After two years in San Francisco, she had come to Europe to dance in a new competition in Switzerland and was spotted there by the director of the Paris Opéra Ballet, who offered to take her on as a quadrille, the lowest rank in the company. There was something about her he liked, he told her. Not everything, but something. He can make her better, if she will work. And so she had come to Paris and rented a room in Montmartre from a sullen girl in the company who does not speak to her. She had a short affair with a violinist who liked to hold her feet, tracing his fingers over the bloody patches and rough calluses. Then she had a slightly longer fling with a dancer, a sujet, as they call soloists, and she has learned enough French to get by. Every morning she goes to the opera house for class in the huge, round studio that hangs like an unpopped bubble between the auditorium and the Opéra’s green dome. Instructions come to her mostly as the names of steps, which she only knows in French anyway, and as eight counts and clapping and singing—bum BA BA, bum BA BA—and rapid bursts of elaborate description she can’t follow and, sometimes, to her, comme ça, comme ça with a demonstration she imitates as best she can. If she succeeds, she earns a voilà, simple, voilà, c’est tout. If she fails, there is a small grimace, a twitch of the head, a resigned smile, a retreat.
For Joan, Paris has the feeling of waiting. All the elegance, the light and water and stone and refined bits of greenery, must be for something, something more than simple habitation and aggressive driving of Renaults and exuberant besmearing with dog shit. The city seems like an offering that has not been claimed. Its beauty is suspenseful. Joan has walked the boulevards and bridges and embankments, sat in the uncomfortable green metal chairs in the Tuileries, puttered down the Seine on a tourist barge, been to the top of the Eiffel Tower, stared politely at countless paintings, been leered at and kissed at by so many men, stood in patches of harlequin light in a dozen chilly naves, bought a scarf she couldn’t afford, surreptitiously stroked the neatly stacked skulls in the catacombs, listened to jazz, gotten drunk on wine, ridden on the back of scooters, done everything she thinks she should in Paris, and still there has always been the feeling of something still to come, a purpose as yet unmet, an expectation.
But, now, in the dark, on the red velvet couch where fashionable Parisian ladies used to retire from the scrutiny of the opera house, Joan finds herself unexpectedly atop a moment that feels significant. Her life, unbeknownst to her, was narrowing around this point, funneling her toward it. The city was never waiting. She was waiting. For Arslan. Already she has started to think of him by his first name. If the beauty of Paris is suspenseful, the beauty of his dancing is almost terrible. It harrows her. Her throat is tight with fear. She is afraid of how this man, this stranger, has already changed the sensation of being alive. She is afraid he will slip away. All the things she has felt for months—the mundane loneliness, the frustration with language, the nagging anxiety, the gratitude for the opportunity to dance—all that is gone, replaced with brutal need. She should leave. She should go home and then to class tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. But her need is too powerful to ignore. She must see it through.
Carefully, she eases the door of the box shut behind her. The loge and escalier are deserted. The orchestra kicks up again, muted and distant. She has left the door to the back staircase propped open, and she passes into the convoluted innards of the Palais, making a few navigational flourishes to avoid spots where she might encounter Opéra stage crew or where the Kirov would be likely to have stationed security guards. She goes up through a stairwell and along a catwalk through the fly tower, where the painted backdrops fall silently through space like huge blades, and then she descends and descends. He will not be in the best dressing room; she guesses he will be in one of the second best, and she must cross the width of the theater to get there, something most covertly done through one of the basements. Her loneliness within the company has made her an expert in the geography of the opera house. Between rehearsals, when the others go out together for espresso or climb to the roof to gaze across the city and smoke with patina-green Apollo and his upraised lyre, she wanders the corridors and staircases, seeks out corners where she can sit invisibly and read a book. Some doors are locked but not as many as should be. The concierge is lazy.
The cryptlike basement is dark, but she finds a switch. Harsh fluorescence lights its stone vaults and the piles of miscellaneous stage junk underneath them. There are plain black cases for delicate things—lights, perhaps—in neat, anonymous stacks, but then there are loose assemblages of props: foam boulders, tables and chairs, floppy velvet stags, crates of fake fruit, canopy beds in pieces, an elaborate tomb, thrones, swords, scepters, a guillotine, carriages, muskets, angels’ wings, donkeys’ heads, trees, a magnificent rubber boa constrictor, Corinthian columns, and heaps of other jumbled objects under plastic sheeting or canvas tarps from the gas-lamp days. Joan hurries through, pausing only to lift the drape from an oval mirror and look at herself. She sees a flushed face, lank hair, eyes dilated in the gloom, a floral dress too thin for the season, tight in the waist like Parisian women wear. She draws herself up. She tells herself she is ethereal, mysterious. She will simply appear, like the fairy in the window in La Sylphide. She reaches under her skirt and pulls off her ratty underwear, dropping the scrap of cloth into an enormous urn, three feet tall, dusty and black, that stands beside a pile of wooden gravestones.
His name is written on a piece of tape stuck on a door. She is waiting when he comes in, his sodden T-shirt already stripped off and balled up in his hand. He pauses and glances back out into the hallway, looking both ways before he shuts the door. For a moment, he studies her. Then he touches her cheek and says, “Très belle.” He shows her the tears that come away on his fingers. “Mais pourquoi triste?”
“Je ne suis pas triste. Je suis très heureuse parce que je suis avec le meilleur danseur du monde.”
He does not seem especially flattered or surprised to find a strange girl speaking schoolgirl French in his dressing room, calling him the best dancer in the world. Nor does he appear impressed by how she managed to evade the Kirov security men or confused about what to do with her. Ordinarily, her love affairs are entered into skittishly, sometimes reluctantly. She doesn’t dive into bed but flutters in like a wayward moth. But now she strips off Arslan’s damp tights almost violently, as though she were skinning an animal. On the floor, his black eyes flick to her—amused, not especially surprised— when he discovers she is naked under her dress. The glance reminds her of how he had looked spotting his turns, arrogant, tapping his gaze briefly, indifferently against the empty theater, needing nothing from it.
Clutching this Russian stranger, smelling his sweat, feeling the oddly remote pressure of him inside her, she wants some piece of the fearsome beauty he has onstage. She wants to take some of his perfection for herself. He buries his face in her neck, as though flattening himself against a bomb blast. Even as his body presses on her, chest to chest, the outsides of his legs against the insides of hers, he seems hidden.
She pries his face up with both hands, makes him look at her. Still, she isn’t satisfied. She cranes her neck so their faces are as close as they can be without touching. “Regarde-moi,” she whispers. “Tu m’étonnes.” He tries to twist his head away, but she holds on. “Regarde-moi,” she says again.
Something travels through the dark eyes, some obscure disturbance. And then he looks at her the way she wants. He sees her; she knows he does. She releases his face, but he doesn’t look away, not until he is done and closes his eyes.
Before she leaves, she writes her name and her mother’s address in Virginia on a slip of paper with a kohl pencil. She does not expect to hear from him.

Meet the Author

Maggie Shipstead is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Her first novel, Seating Arrangements, was a New York Times best seller, a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and the winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction.

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Astonish Me 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I devoured it in two sittings. Ms. Shipstead writes expertly, beautifully about the world of ballet, but it's her uncompromising description of female friendship and rivalry that make this book so brilliant. One of the best novels of the year. Loved it.  -Moira M., Brooklyn
belle7171 More than 1 year ago
I won’t waste your time with a synopsis of the book.  I’m quite positive you can get that by either reading the description and other reviews.  But let me tell you how I came to read this book.  Like you, I read what the novel is about, and decided to give it a look.  What made it even more intriguing is that my daughter studies ballet (soon to be on pointe), and although I’m not a “dance mom” (I don’t think), I am familiar with those types of parents.  Throughout the book, I found myself not really caring for any of the characters.  They were cold and unfeeling with the exception of Jacob, Joan’s husband, whom I pitied.  I also wanted to hug my daughter multiple times, and thanking her for not wanting to dance for a living (she’d rather write).  There was also the occasional time where I wanted to pull a few of her friends aside (who DO want to dance for a living), and convince them not to pursue dance.   I liked the book enough – but if this is even close to the reality of what a dancer can look forward to in life, I’m saddened.  These characters lived for dance.  And I don’t think any of them were happy.  
lovelybookshelf More than 1 year ago
Astonish Me is the story of Joan, an American dancer who helps a Soviet ballet star defect. Joan is a very good dancer, but she will never be a soloist. She eventually leaves the world of ballet, marries, has a child and a new life. Years later, Joan finds herself faced with the world she left behind when she recognizes a rare, exceptional talent in her son. This was my first encounter with Maggie Shipstead's writing, and I was captivated from the very first page. Her writing is simply stunning. I savored every word, and I didn't want to put the book down. These characters are flawed, their lives complicated, and the connections between them confusing and messy. Yet Shipstead created characters I loved and became fully invested in. There was a "twist" near the end - more of a cliché, really - that I saw coming for most of the book. I was so disappointed when it finally turned up... I'd held out hope that I'd be wrong. But my disappointment was short lived: I wasn't at the end of the book yet! Shipstead took that cliché and put her own spin on it. The tension and my conflicting emotions had my stomach in knots and took my breath away. From that moment until the last page, I simultaneously wanted to throw the book across the room and hug it. What a phenomenal reading experience. I can't wait to read more by Maggie Shipstead. I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.
fireflymom More than 1 year ago
This was beautifully written and very well done.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Although not interested in the ballet, I found this book captivating. The story was beautifully told and realistic in how peoples decisions follow them through life.
Ariesgrl 27 days ago
In the 1970s, Joan is a professional ballerina. The company she works for has the breakout star from Russia, Arslan Ruskov. Joan is the reason he is in the United States, she even drove the get-away car. Despite the fact that she loves Arslan, he is engaged to another woman and Joan knows she will never be a soloist, so she decides to leave the ballet world. Joan marries her high school boyfriend and they live a nice life, but when their son begins to study dance, Joan is forced back into the lifestyle. Will her secrets be exposed or will her son be able to follow his dreams? Astonish Me is written with a style, similar to a performance. It is divided into different acts and the narration sets the scene as the events unfold. Several different topics are broached in this book, ranging from parenting styles to marriages to work ethics. This is a book that you will want to read with someone else, as the ending will leave you desperate to discuss with a friend who understands. Notes: This review was written for the My Sister's Books bookstore. This review was originally posted on the Ariesgrl Book Reviews website.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book!  Beautifully written with lots of surprises toward the end of the book.
bookchickdi More than 1 year ago
In Maggie Shipstead's first novel, Seating Arrangements, she managed to brilliantly capture the voice of a middle-aged man contemplating an affair during the weekend of his daughter's wedding. I was so impressed with Shipstead's beautifully crafted sentences, it was like she spent hours making each one perfect. In Astonish Me, Shipstead once again drops us into a world we don't know. We feel what it's like to be a part of a ballet company, the competition, the discipline and way one must give oneself completely over to become a dancer worthy of being part of a ballet company. Like athletes, at some point everyone must come to the realization that they are no longer good enough to go to the next level. The novel moves back and forth in time, and we see Joan as a young dancer and then as a wife, mother and teacher. Joan's husband has loved her forever, but sometimes he feels she doesn't love him or their life as much. He says to Joan:"Most of the time now you're here with me- really here, invested; it's not like it was at first- and I think, she's letting me know her, really know her the way people do when they're married. And at other times you're so distant it's like someone's swapped you out for a forgery. You seem like you're going through the motions."One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Elaine, Joan's friend from the dance company. She is a better dancer than Joan, and has a long-time relationship with the dancer who founded their company. Shipstead could have another entire novel from Elaine's point-of-view. Astonish Me is another brava performance from Shipstead. Joan is a fascinating protagonist, so complicated and although she is so closed up, Shipstead lets us see inside to who she really is. Fans of ballet will definitely like this insider's look.
Almost-Tica More than 1 year ago
This book did not astonish me.  Neither did it captivate me or even hold my interest for very long.  As another reviewer opined, the characters seem cold and unlikeable, and the ballet world described is certainly not a pleasant place to be.  I finished the book, but towards the end, I started skimming faster and faster, because I simply didn't care what happened.  What a sad bunch of people.
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Berls More than 1 year ago
**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.** 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.