Astonish Me

Astonish Me

by Maggie Shipstead


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345804617
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/06/2015
Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 430,364
Product dimensions: 5.21(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.57(d)

About 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.

Read an Excerpt

February 1973—Paris

Excerpted from "Astonish Me"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Maggie Shipstead.
Excerpted by permission of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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?

Customer Reviews

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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 More than 1 year 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.
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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.