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Astonish Me

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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.

272 pages, Paperback

First published January 6, 2014

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About the author

Maggie Shipstead is the New York Times-bestselling author of the novels Astonish Me and Seating Arrangements, winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize and the L.A. Times Book Prize for First Fiction. A third novel, Great Circle, will be published in May 2021. She is a graduate of Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Her writing has appeared in many places, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, Departures, Condé Nast Traveler, Outside, The Best American Short Stories, and The Best American Sports Writing. In 2012 and 2018, she was a National Magazine Award finalist for fiction. She lives in Los Angeles.

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Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,050 reviews48.7k followers
January 31, 2021
As the son of a retired dance teacher and the husband of a former dancer and the father of a current dancer, I felt the beat of Maggie Shipstead’s new ballet novel even before the curtain rose.

I’ve been looking forward to it since I read her debut, “Seating Arrangements.” That button-down satire of the Martha’s Vineyard set was the smartest romantic comedy of 2012. Shipstead can be fantastically witty about the anxieties and humiliations of middle age. Her take on a sniping corps of cutthroat ballerinas could be another bravura comedy.

So it takes a few measures to realize that her second novel, “Astonish Me,” performs a dramatic changement. The world of ballet, after all, is not a particularly funny one. Despite their mothers’ cooing, little girls in tutus learn early that their hips are too wide, their thighs too fat, their tolerance for pain too low. The genetically blessed ones must worship unrelenting precision. In pursuit of the perfect line, extension and turnout, they sacrifice their own bones. “You can’t be weak in the ballet,” Shipstead writes, “or it’ll crush you.”

If you live in that brutal, beautiful world — or especially if you still long for it — this is a novel you must read.

Something of a ballet’s structure is reflected in these pages. Though it spans three decades, “Astonish Me” is a strikingly svelte book, composed of short, intense scenes that move back and forth in time and around the world. Inspired by the defection of Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974, Shipstead has created a similarly brilliant Russian dancer named Arslan Rusakov. Handsome, seductive and narcissistic, he begins to transform Western ballet almost as soon as he bolts from his Soviet handlers and earns asylum in the United States. His artistic perfection arrives gilded with political triumphalism.

For a dance novel to work, it’s got to dazzle us with great dance, and though Shipstead claims she has no aptitude at the barre, she can choreograph arresting scenes of Arslan at work: “His technique is not fusty but pure,” she writes. “His movements are quick but unhurried, impossible in their clarity and difficulty and extraordinary in how they seem to burst from nowhere.” She even lets us feel the audience impatient to applaud, with “their hands held apart like straining magnets.”

And she’s just as alluring when she shows the young genius lounging — always shirtless — in his apartment, drunk on a nation’s praise, trying to divine how to act in this new world of infinite possibilities. The clubs, the drugs, the women — all of it antithetical to staying in peak condition and none of it enough to make up for what he left behind, which is everything.

But the novel’s real focus stands off in the wings: a young American woman named Joan. She’s doomed to be a good dancer, good enough to know she’ll never be a great one. The first time she sees Arslan in Paris, “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.” She can’t help telling him, “Tu m’étonnes” — You astonish me.

The novel opens after Joan’s romance with Arslan has boiled and fizzled away. Though she drove his getaway car, she’s since been replaced on his stage and in his bed by another defector, a prima ballerina so spectacular that Joan can’t even feel jealous. Now she might as well give up dance. She might as well marry that nice young man from home and have a baby. She might as well start learning, in other words, to live the rest of her life in the gray light after waking from an impossibly vivid dream. “It’s like there’s an empty space in the world that was meant for me,” she tells a friend, “but I can’t get inside. I can just bang on the outside.”

If that sounds like the program for a dreary performance, don’t worry. There may be little comedy in this novel, but Shipstead still has her flawless sense of timing and a sensitive ear for the muffled flutterings of hope and desire. Even when Joan moves to California with her nice husband and begins raising their son, the scenes still flex with tension. Shipstead shows us that most common yet difficult to capture reality: not a bad marriage nor an ecstatic one, but one in which the partners are silently aware of their asymmetrical desires. Can Joan ever really be satisfied living with a mere mortal, chatting with pudgy moms over the fence? Can a woman — even one used to unnatural bends and poses — train herself to go through the motions of happiness in a wholly natural-looking way?

The fractured structure of this novel allows Shipstead a chance to do several disparate things — most of them well. From the excitement of Cold War political celebrities to the cruel athleticism of ballet, she moves confidently into the West Coast suburbs with their own species of prima donna and their own command performances. As the focus continues to shift, she’s also particularly astute about the way some children and teens experience artistic devotion that borders on erotic obsession.

Many of these highly polished scenes are intensely compelling; even the inevitable “Nutcracker” chapter is superb. But what, exactly, is gained by such frantic leaping across space and time? These narrative jumps sometimes feel erratic and random when they should feel purposeful and graceful. And a few chapters risk looking too thin, like some aggressively dieting dancer who loses all her body fat and then begins shedding muscle. Why can’t we have more connective tissue between these brief scenes? Some of them seem stranded and underdeveloped, particularly near the very end when such concision robs the novel of the space it needs to keep grand revelations and family disruptions from sounding melodramatic.

But perhaps these complaints come too close to asking for a different kind of book. (Why can’t “Swan Lake” have more tap dancing?) The truth is, I relished this novel and was eager to chase it wherever it wanted to go — from Joan’s admission that she can’t be a great dancer to her nervous realization, years later, that her son just might be one. 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.

Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 120 books160k followers
November 29, 2013
This book is, without a doubt, beautifully written. I also loooove me a book about the intense world of ballet. Shipstead inhabits her characters completely and really builds the world of this novel as her characters live it. There is a problem of proportion in this novel. It feels 200 pages too short. The structure is such that at times, you wonder why the abrupt shift from one character's POV to another. The big "secret" that is not really a secret, is revealed to the only people who don't know it, in a really bizarre way that makes absolutely no sense (see 200 pages too short). An then the ending is ludicrous. It just... doesn't make sense. And it's a shame because so much about this book is outstanding. Elaine and her relationhship with Mr. K., Joan and her relationship with Jacob, how Harry grows into young manhood, how Chloe comes into her own. I spent ALL NIGHT thinking about these people after I finished the book so I know there is something here. I Just wanted so much more from this book and for these fascinating characters.
Profile Image for Leanne.
129 reviews287 followers
June 1, 2015
This is not a showy, sprawling, epic novel - instead, it is compact, and quietly elegant, and (if I may) perfectly choreographed. Remnants of my childhood obsession with the movie Center Stage are still floating around, so with the combination of ballet and smooth, poignant writing, it was impossible for me not to love this.

Astonish Me is told through the eyes of various characters in small vignette chapters, but it is primarily Joan's story. Mildly talented, but without that necessary "it" factor to become a proper and celebrated professional ballerina, Joan lives a life in the corps that is mostly unremarkable. Her dancing days are over when she becomes pregnant and marries Jacob, who has been devoted to her since high school. Their convenient marriage slowly develops into one of love, but their son Harry reintroduces another component into the family: ballet. As he grows, so does his talent, and this brings Joan (and Jacob) right back into the dancing world. Also entwined in the story are Chloe, the neighbours' daughter who is also very interested in the art of ballet, Elaine, Joan's roommate from the company - a far more talented soloist turned artistic director, and of course, Arslan Rusakov. Arslan, the magical, near-perfect Russian dancer who defects from Russia after a brief encounter with a young Joan. She drives the getaway car, falls into an affair with him, and has her heart broken - and then is brought back into his orbit years later when he becomes Harry's idol and mentor. Ranging from the 70s to the early 2000s, the story skips back and forth as it presents the very compelling stories of each of these characters and brings them both together and apart.

The book is about family, and truth, and love, but it is mostly about ballet, and how it takes and takes and takes and gives very little, but the dancers do it anyway - for the power, and the too-fleeting glory, and the fact that they have given their whole lives to ballet and they wouldn't know what else to do. Ballet presents the sliver of hope that one day you might be able to reach perfection. ("Never in her life, not once, has she danced the way she wishes to, but futility has become an accepted companion. The ideal that lives beyond the mirror makes teasing, flickering appearances but never quite shows itself, never solidifies into something that can be looked at and not just glimpsed.")

The novel is a little melodramatic, probably purposefully as a parallel to ballet itself. And the ending was perfect and sweet and sad and bitter - yes, I wish I had had more time in this absorbing world (232 pages are just not enough!) but I wouldn't have changed those last couple of paragraphs.

Now that I'm in love with Maggie Shipstead, I'm off to go read Seating Arrangements as soon as possible!
Profile Image for kari.
849 reviews
May 5, 2014
Astonish me? Yeah, astonishingly dull. I'm giving this a two, but please note, it is a very weak two, very weak.
There is no tension to this book whatsoever.
A brief synopsis. Watch out because there are spoilers.
A ballerina in the corps de ballet gets pregnant by the premiere dancer, a Russian whom she helped defect, then has sex with her life long male friend who loves her and so doing tricks him into marrying her.
This whole thing is a badly done soap opera and the saddest thing I can say about that is that most soap operas that you get involved in you actually care about the people. And here, I simply didn't.
The book is written mostly as vignettes, little pieces of the lives here and there. Most scenes end with no resolution of the action.
I think you would only find this book even mildly interesting if you are very knowledgeable about ballet. If you don't know the difference between a plié and a pirouette or a relevé from a rond de jambe or the difference between an arabesque and an attitude, this likely isn't the book for you. I do know those terms and I am familiar with ballet, (I Love ballet) but there is just nothing here as far as a plot. I kept waiting for the story to pull me in. Even when everyone learns the secret it is merely meh.
For me personally, this was a pointless waste of my time.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,081 reviews2,720 followers
March 11, 2017
This is a graceful novel about professional ballet dancers and the passionate lives they lead. It's also about what happens to dancers when they can't dance anymore —how do you create a new identity if all you've ever known is ballet?

We first meet Joan in the 1970s, an American who is in love with Arslan, a Russian dancer who defected to the States. But Arslan has left Joan and is going to marry another woman. With a broken heart, Joan quits ballet and starts a relationship with a longtime friend, which feels safer. Years later, Joan's life becomes entangled with ballet again when her son, Harry, shows a talent for it.

The novel jumps back and forth between the 1990s and the 1970s, and through flashbacks we see the day that Joan first met Arslan, and the day Arslan defected, and the day Harry started dancing, and many other days. It took a few chapters before I was fully engaged in the story, but I eventually connected more with Joan's character and situation, and I'm glad I finished the book. The ending of the story is telegraphed back at the beginning, and reminds the reader just how passionate dancers can be in their art and in their lives.

I'd recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys stories from the world of ballet. My rating: 3.5 rounded up to 4 stars
Profile Image for Barbara.
1,396 reviews4,906 followers
October 25, 2021

Readers familiar with books/movies about ballet will recognize many of the character types in this story - youngsters desperate to be professional dancers, older men (dancers and choreographers) taking advantage of their young charges, unfaithful lovers, and so on.

The girl at the center of this story is Joan, a so-so ballet dancer who managed - by dint of many years of lessons, practice, and sacrifice - to become a minor member of an American ballet corps.

During a visit to Paris, Joan met Arslan Rusakov, a superstar of the Russian ballet.

Joan became enthralled with Arslan and a few years later, when the Russians performed in Canada, helped him defect to the United States. A brief relationship blossomed between Joan and Arslan but Rusakov was serially unfaithful and eventually married another ballerina, breaking Joan's heart. Helping Joan navigate this drama is her roommate Elaine.....

…..an excellent ballerina who becomes the muse of bisexual choreographer Mr. K.

Meanwhile Joan's best friend since childhood, a boy named Jacob, has been pining away for her forever. After the Arslan affair, and realizing she would never be a principal dancer, Joan gave in to Jacob's pleas and married him.

They had a son, Harry, a sweet boy who seemed interested in everything in the world except ballet. In time, though, Harry developed a crush on his neighbor/playmate, a little girl named Chloe.

Joan eventually becomes a ballet teacher, and when little Chloe becomes interested in dancing this seems to galvanize Harry's interest as well. The Harry/Chloe story of two kids growing up together is a little reminiscent of the relationship between Joan and Jacob except that Harry and Chloe both get involved in ballet.

The book spans a time period of about thirty years, starting in the 1970s and ending in the late 1990s. Rather than being chronological, however, the story jumps back and forth in time, eventually revealing important events in Joan's life as well as what goes on with Harry and Chloe as they grow up.

The plot coasts along to a climax that's inevitable, though it plays out in a fashion that's not very believable. I'd categorize the book as part expose of the world of professional ballet and part coming of age story. To me the book was mildly engaging, filled with characters that behaved badly and weren't particularly likable.

Just an okay book for me.

You can follow my reviews at https://reviewsbybarbsaffer.blogspot....
Profile Image for Katie.
279 reviews359 followers
July 18, 2018
Astonish me charts the lives of two generations of ballet dancers. The main character Joan isn't especially gifted. Her claim to fame is she helps a brilliant Russian dancer defect and has an affair with him. However, he soon moves on to pastures new and Joan compromises by marrying the childhood friend who has always loved her and leaves the ballet company. A son is born to whom she imparts her love of ballet and trains. The son is in love with the girl next door who is also training to be a dancer.

So there's a lot of unrequited love in this novel. But what came across more strongly was how vain everyone in this book is. I often felt vanity was the theme of this novel but the author somehow missed it. It was there more by accident than design. Probably there's no pursuit more narcissistic than dancing. It involves the constant appraisal of oneself in a mirror. What was surprising and might have been clever had the author had more command of it was that the non-dancers were no less vain, especially the men. I kept feeling an opportunity was missed. Instead the narrative concentrated more on domestic drama and chick-litty love triangles. The writing and pacing too was uneven - inspired passages often juxtaposed with lazy unnecessary sections. It was okay but probably one of those novels I'll have little memory of six months down the line.
Profile Image for Ash Wednesday.
441 reviews525 followers
August 5, 2016
How strange it was that a dream, once realized, could quickly turn mundane.

Not everyone can appreciate ballet, much less be a fan of it. I certainly am not. I find the discipline and the artistic egos of those who willingly subject themselves through physical and mental torture to achieve technical perfection more intriguing than the actual performance. People whose sole point of validation and happiness are the appreciation of others. With enough fervour to completely shun complex carbohydrates for extension, form and turnout?

I mean, ofcourse I wanna know about these crazy and gorgeous people.

In the world of dancers, ballerinas are rockstars: ethereal and breathtaking in their narcissism.
”In ballet,” she went on, “when something’s really beautiful, I feel a lot, but not happy or sad, really. Just a feeling. With goose bumps. I like that.” After a moment, she sighed and rolled onto her stomach, resting her forehead on her arms.
“If I can’t dance, I know I won’t die, but it feels like I will.”

In 1973, a mediocre ballerina from New York meets and falls in love with famed Russian dancer Arslan Ruskov. Joan’s tumultuous affair with Arslan begins when he entails her help in his defection to the United States, and ends when the discrepancy in their talents and futures in ballet became too evident to ignore. She eventually marries her childhood sweetheart Jacob Bintz and retires to California where they raise together their son, Harry, while she deals with the longing for the extraordinary world that she left behind by teaching ballet. Here she lives with the tedium of a reality still stained by a past that she simultaneously yearns and evades: envious and catty neighbours, starry-eyed little girls who want to be like her and a son who turns out to be a ballet prodigy himself. Unavoidably, Joan’s present and past draws closer and closer, with secrets long buried threatening to be unearthed and destroy the happiness she has settled for.

What I liked most about Astonish Me was that while it already chose a topic that was fascinating to me (i.e. professional ballet in the shadows of the Cold War), it still went above and beyond what I expected. The story is divided into five parts, spanning from 1973 to 2002 told in a non-linear manner, focusing instead on the evolution of no less than six characters, both immersed and outside of that remarkable environment. Do not look for fancy twists and heart-stopping reveals in this one, it makes no claims to be a mystery. Whatever unspoken detail this may have harboured from the beginning, it never felt like it was belittling my intelligence by claiming it as the point of the story. You are EXPECTED to know things. This instead focuses on an exhaustive study of (more or less) six individuals tied together by their wants, their failures, their compromises and where that all leads them to.

And it was glorious.

It’s quite tedious to detail the merits of each character but between Joan and Harry’s story lines, the people they evolve and transition with were perfectly layered against each other. The delivery was indeed effortlessly elegant. Sometimes literary fiction and character studies can get too ostentatious, but here the prose had an approachable feel, one that you can get lost in, without feeling like finishing a chapter is pulling teeth. It was as luxuriant as it was enjoyable with wit and humour coming unexpectedly.
He defends his son and wife fiercely, and when she once asked Harry why he couldn’t have a hobby that wasn’t for queers, Jacob had taken her outside and told her she had a choice between being banned from seeing her grandson or shutting up.
Still, he has wondered - wonders everyday - if Harry is gay.
All he knows for sure is that his son envies another man’s ballon.

Oh Jacob, you and your unassuming milquetoast sweetness, dad jokes and friend-zone worthiness.

There are books that makes you feel a little cheap after reading them, this had a plush quality that you just want to wrap around yourself. Except maybe Chloe and Arslan’s idea of a “revolutionary” ballet towards the end. That felt like an overwrought cliche, something right out of the pages of Center Stage’s script. Or perhaps its just that I really hated Arslan, who was really an unapologetic gonad all throughout but nevertheless did standout in a cast that was already impressive.

I’m actually a little disappointed by the lack of an author’s note at the end because I was quite curious about the writing and research process of this book. Of how much of Arslan Ruskov was inspired by Mikhail Baryshnikov (who also defected into the US through Canada with the help of an American woman) and so on.

But that aside, Astonish Me was, indeed, quite astonishing. (Sorry, I just had to.)

ARC provided by the Random House-Knopf. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may not appear in the final edition.

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Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,783 reviews14.2k followers
May 4, 2014
Full immersion into the world of a professional ballet and the dancers, their world, their hopes and dreams. The struggle to be better, jump higher, despite injuries and bleeding feet, to be noticed.

Yet this story is so much more. What happens to the dancers when they cannot dance? How do they make a new life for themselves? Joan is one such dancer, who falls in love with another dancer, who does not stay.
Her story and her sons, who becomes a ballet prodigy himself. Well written with a quiet wisdom, this is an enthralling read about families, secrets and sacrifice.

It is based on some actual well known dancers, and it was easy for me to guess who was represented by whom in this novel. Loved every minute of this book.
Profile Image for Doug Bradshaw.
258 reviews222 followers
April 21, 2014
It's hard to imagine that Maggie Shipstead at 30 years old, could write such a wise and thoughtful book. Her writing is packed with insightful comments about each of the characters and their reactions as they make their way through the maze of ballet at the highest level, their relationships with the masters, their lack of confidence as they struggle to find their niche, their diets of cigarettes and coke, their huge sacrifices to get there, etc.

The book jumps around from the early '70s to 2002 and centers around a Russian who defects, a beautiful young dancer who wants to be with him, her sacrifice to have a child and raise him, her safe second choice husband, and all of the dicey complicated relationships in between. Much of it is told in present tense in each era, which I found very effective, up close and personal. I found the story very realistic and satisfying.

I think this author is here to stay.

Profile Image for Angela M .
1,309 reviews2,191 followers
February 28, 2015

This is certainly a fascinating look at the world of ballet and it deserves three stars for that since I knew so little about it . It was also about people's obsessions with ballet, but also with other people and the ending was mostly predictable from the beginning.

I didn't feel any connection to the characters. In fact I didn't like them very much. It's not that this is a prerequisite for a great novel , but not having that connection , made it difficult for me to accept their actions.

I know that I am in the minority , since so many people have rated this with 4 and 5 stars . But for me it was just okay not astonishing .
Profile Image for Jenna.
249 reviews77 followers
January 24, 2016
Full disclosure: I spent many years involved with ballet, and so my behind-the-scenes knowledge of the highlights and lowlights of ballet fueled my appreciation for this novel, which I think realistically conveys some of the backstage and offstage experience of this elegantly dysfunctional artistic community and its denizens. I honestly do not know whether the novel would present so engagingly to readers without any knowledge of ballet. I would certainly think at least some level of interest in the ballet-world setting would be a prerequisite for enjoyment.

Ballet is Crazytown. You know it, I know it, Maggie Shipstead knows it, and her characters know it. When ballet is presented in its full, rich crazytown glory, rather than in some idealized and sentimental way -- that is, when it's presented as ballet really IS rather than how it APPEARS to a doting audience -- it's great novelistic territory.

And what ballet IS, what makes it great, is the same thing that elevated this novel for me from demi-pointe mediocrity to en pointe goodness: Technique. Discipline. Precision. What you learn about ballet when you're doing it is that, unfortunately, it's not as it appears: you are not soaring through the air like a sparkly leaping pegasus rainbow unicorn pony. Ballet execution is NOT freeing and liberating for the performers, only for the spectators. To create the passionate, transporting, emotional, imaginative spectacle on the receiving end, the performers must be able to successfully input the brutally demanding, rigid, technical, traditional, conservative, one might say unnatural, perhaps physically impossible, requirements of ballet. There is a huge discrepancy between the emotive beauty that is seen and the brutality and pure, dispassionate physicality that governs and engenders it.
And even when not dancing, ballet is a harsh, unforgiving and unfair world in which dancers' physical bodies are their currency, their worth, and their language. This encourages a kind of dissociation between mind and body that can affect dancers' relationships with substances, with food, with sexuality, and of course with intimate others (friends, lovers, family) -- which is a primary theme of this novel.
And, since most dancers start so young, the influence of the ballet world can affect their entire developmental trajectory. There's no easily going back in adulthood to learn all the critical life, decision-making, relational, and communication skills you skipped when you were entirely consumed by mastering another untransferable skill set that is only useful in one small, hyper-exclusive, and irrational world.

All of these aspects of the ballet are captured with a remarkable, subtle precision by Shipstead in this book. Much like a great dancer, Shipstead's skill as a writer is so beautifully honed that the effort and level of talent required is not even immediately evident.

Now there ARE flaws in this book, and (especially if the ballet thing doesn't resonate with you in the first place), I think the flaws are enough to warrant the three-star ratings that many have given it. But I also think the flaws are minor enough that they can be forgiven or so-whatted away:

Criticism 1: "This novel is not realistic/believable; things happen that are too farfetched/too much of a coincidence."
OK, sure. I don't know about you, but I read fiction in part because what happens is not entirely bound to the conventions or probabilities that rule the natural world. Maybe some things happened in this book that were less than probable, but certainly possible -- and if weird shit is going to happen, which sometimes it does, then it could surely probably happen in the already crazytown and illogical world of ballet.
In fact, this is a main theme of the book -- the idea that chance governs a lot of ballet, that you are kind of chosen by fate (or not) to become a dancer because such a crazy and rare, uncontrollable combination of factors, including genetics and circumstances at birth, determine one's ability to be one or not. Ballet is a lottery, not a Horatio Alger hard-work-pays-off story.

Criticism 2: "I did not like the main character/any characters; I could not relate to/sympathize with her/them."
OK. I never know to respond to this common criticism because I read not to find nice characters to hang out and have lunch which, but rather interesting characters to challenge me and make me think.
But I think this criticism is fair for all the reasons identified in my review; the characters are to some degree developmentally damaged and shaped by their participation in a rarified world of beauty-creation that is, ironically, quite unbeautiful and offputting.
And since these characters have little ability to healthily relate to one another, then it's probably healthy if you cannot entirely relate to them.
And the characters do grow and evolve to some extent, though a realistically modest extent.

Criticism 3: "The ending was too pat/happy/neatly tied up."
Was it? I am not sure that's the case; I think maybe one person got what he/she actually wanted, a couple people decided to make the best out of their current situation, and a large number of the characters remained to some degree unhappy or unsatisfied.
I think the ballet that takes place in the end might make it seem like things are all wrapped up nicely, but really that ballet functions as kind of a metaphor for the way THE ballet uses/consumes people's lives/bodies as fodder to make art. So in the end you have a nice ballet with a nice story -- but so what, and was it worth it for everyone involved?

Criticism 4: "I guessed that surprise plot twist a mile away/I saw that coming!"
I don't think Shipstead meant this to be a mystery novel or meant the twist toward the end as a Big Reveal. There are plenty of hints to the reader, right from the beginning, that this plot development is forthcoming; it just gets confirmed in the end. The novel is not about surprising us with this revelation; it's about the characters' reaction to this revelation. If you need to be driven by plot to enjoy a novel, and surprised by every turn, this novel may not satisfy because it is more driven by theme, which the plot supports. It's also just a lot of great writing and description and characterization, which could be underappreciated by readers more fixated on plot.

So there's my attempt at a fair review of this tricky book that seems as divisive as ballet itself! Hope you enjoy it if you choose to read it - and if you do read and enjoy it, I also recommend The Cranes Dance for more messed-up-ballet-dancers reading enjoyment.
Profile Image for ``Laurie.
197 reviews
September 30, 2022
The synopsis of "Astonish Me" was promising and I'm always interested in reading a good book about the ballet. Sad to say I didn't find this one all that good though. I can't quite put my finger on why this book didn't work for me but I'll try.

The 3 female main characters, ballerinas in different stages of their lives and career somehow have the same personality and that personality bored me to death.

You would think professional ballerinas lead fascinating lives or maybe even interesting lives but these women seem to float through life always depressed and moping about something or the other.

Joan, the main character helped Arsland, a male Russian star of the ballet escape from his difficult life and ill treatment in Russia. Once he arrives in New York he wants to finally live and enjoy his life. He's grateful to Joan of course but their short romance ends when he can't wait to start playing the field.
Since Joan was always depressed and moping about something I can't blame him.

Joan seems to revel in her unhappiness and heartbreak over this scamp. And yes, Joan good looking, world wide ballet stars can get any woman they want, any time so I don't know what she was expecting with her new romance.

It's almost like famous Hollywood actresses that hire gorgeous nanny's for their children and are absolutely shocked when their man plays around with said nanny on the sly.
The outraged actress files for divorce and is in shock that this could happen to HER while I'm thinking 'what did you expect to happen?'

Surely a disciplined ballerina can't be such a milksop as Joan. I didn't understand how Joan's drive for success in the world of ballet could even happen since she had such a weak personality, brooding for years over her lost love.
And I do mean brood and mope around for years, refusing to be happy.

None of these characters ever came to life for me and I couldn't care less by the end of the story what happened to any of them. There weren't a lot of redeeming qualities in the characters and I couldn't relate to any of them.

As usual for today's modern authors, Shipstead doesn't supply a happy ending either, just more moping and depression for the women with no end in sight. They certainly all deserved each other.

Yes, I'm disappointed, I wanted to read a rip-roaring, exciting story about the ballet with interesting and complicated characters. Instead I got Joan, the always unhappy main character complaining and depressed about something.

Joan never has any fun in this book either, no happy times to celebrate and enjoy life. I pictured Joan as always wearing black, hair pulled back in a oily ponytail and wearing long jeans that are under her shoes as she droops around life.
That's right Joan, wearing black all the time really perks up the spirits I'm sure.

I mean seriously, give this lady an antidepressant or something and let her grateful to just be alive and healthy for once in her life.

If you like reading depressing books this one's for you.
Profile Image for Julie Ehlers.
1,111 reviews1,414 followers
February 27, 2018
I really liked Maggie Shipstead's first novel, Seating Arrangements, and still remember it very vividly five years later, so it was disheartening how little I enjoyed Astonish Me at first. The multiple narrators seemed absurd—it's a 250-page book; do we really need to hear from Joan, and Joan's husband, and Joan's best friend, and Joan's son, and Joan's next-door neighbor (!?), and Joan's next-door neighbor's kid? (And that's just for starters!) I also felt the book pulled a kind of bait-and-switch: I expected a love story between an American corps dancer and a brilliant Soviet defector, but how quickly the book seemed to slough all that off and settle into a mundane tale of married suburban life, one without even the slightest hint of drama. I also tired of the constant implication that nothing in this world is as pure as ballet dancers, with their singular focus and their higher purpose and their bony bodies. (Maybe this aspect wasn't meant to be taken seriously—it was hard to tell.)

At some point, though, I was (wait for it) astonished to realize I had actually started to care about these people. I really did! The book picked up speed, some interesting plot points took shape, and I finally understood why all those viewpoints were necessary. Astonish Me caught me off guard, somehow, and I have to respect that. I didn't like it as much as Seating Arrangements, but I ended up being glad I read it. Thanks, Maggie Shipstead, for catching your own fish dive just before it hit the floor. Maybe that was your plan all along?
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews3,227 followers
March 7, 2016
You know how sometimes you read a novel and find it difficult to think of anything interesting to say about it? This is how I feel about Astonish Me. It’s a novel about the world of ballet. On the whole it’s quite an enjoyable if undemanding read. The writing was sometimes inspired and more often chatty and run of the mill. A couple of the characters were well drawn and engaging – especially Joan, the mediocre dancer in a world which accepts nothing short of perfection who feels “it’s like there’s an empty space in the world that was meant for me but I can’t get inside. I can just bang on the outside”; others, especially the males, tended to be one dimensional and clichéd. The short, time-leaping chapters sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t – sustaining mystery but skimming over pivotal conflicts. The novel is written in the present tense and personally I found this a mistake as Shipstead never seemed to me in command of her register. There were many awkward moments when she shifted the tense back to both the simple past and past perfect so that, ultimately, the choice of present tense seemed modish and gratuitous. And the denouement was just a little too prettily tidy for my liking. Kind of like an Astro-turf novel for me with nothing much going on beneath the surface.
Profile Image for Dana.
787 reviews
April 28, 2014
"Astonish Me," by Maggie Shipstead did NOT astonish me. It bored me, annoyed me, and disappointed me. This novel set in the world of ballet from the mid 1970's to the early 2000's, had potential to be a wonderful, memorable book. It was neither of those things. There was not a single likeable character. The events were repeated over and over. I was never moved, nor intrigued. I finished it, only because I hoped it would get better. It didn't. The reviews were mostly positive, which makes me wonder if people who liked it know anything about ballet, or the 1970's (I was dancing back then). To Shipstead, it was apparently a world of drugs and immorality, lies and deceit, which COULD have made for a fun book, but didn't. Save your time and money.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,864 followers
December 23, 2021
Novels about art are so often novels about envy and jealousy. Envy of another's talent that surpasses one's own; jealousy that others notice and laud the superior talent, too. When it's a solitary pursuit like writing or painting, there is at least the solace of being able to toil away alone and hide behind your own mystery for a while. But when the art centers on public performance — acting, music, dance — weaknesses are on full display.

Astonish Me captures the ego's frailty in the hyper-competitive, grueling and gorgeous world of ballet. The story opens in the late 1970's as Joan Joyce, a corps member of a New York City ballet, accepts that she will never be more than a competent dancer, remembered more as the castoff lover of superstar Arslan Rusakov than for her footwork. She'd helped Arslan defect from Russia several years before and while he rises like a meteor in the ballet world, Joan sinks into obscurity in a California suburb, raising her son with Jacob, who has been in love with her since high school. Joan remains tangentially connected to her old life through her former roommate and corps member, Elaine, a skilled and brittle ballerina who survives the unforgiving dancer's life with cocaine and cockiness. She, too, has given her heart to an unattainable star, the company director, Mr K. When Joan realizes that both her son and the daughter of her awkward and angry next-door neighbors have the potential to be ballet greats, she reenters the dance world, this time as a teacher and guide.

Maggie Shipstead pulls off the astonishing feat of capturing three decades and multiple lives in a scant 250 pages, immersing the reader in the dancers' pain, both physical and mental. The fragility of connections — between husband and wife, lovers, mother and son, teacher and acolyte, fame and obscurity, desire and despair — are captured in well-crafted and sympathetic characters. The prose is as lovely, taut and sure as the line of a dancer's body in grand jeté. The narrative jumps around in time in a series of flashbacks that can be jarring, but each scene builds on the next in a chain of variations that creates mood and style.

An artful, ravishing, and bittersweet tale of dance and its demands on the body and soul.
Profile Image for Ellie.
1,495 reviews378 followers
June 20, 2015
I found Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead to be a very enjoyable read, allowing me to spend some time in the romance of the world of ballet.

Joan is a ballerina in love with Arslan Ruskov, a superb dancer whom she has helped defect from Russia. He loses interest in her, partly, it seems, because she will never be as great a dancer as he is. Becoming pregnant, Joan marries Jacob, a man who has loved her since they were children. Years later, Joan's path once again crosses with Arslan as her son become a ballet star.

The book looks closely at the world of ballet, its demands on the body-and soul. I liked Joan, almost in spite of myself, more for her love of dance, perhaps, than for her character. Joan never seems to quite fit into the suburban world she has joined when marrying Jacob but neither does she seem especially unhappy. At one point Jacob accuses her of just "going through the motions," and she wonders what is that problem with that, that, in fact, is exactly what she has been trained to do.

Every woman who dreamed of dancing or who wished she had the talent or body to dream of dancing ballet, will probably enjoy this book. I feel a need now to find more books about dancers.
Profile Image for Jen CAN.
506 reviews1,488 followers
January 3, 2015
I absolutely loved this book. The story, the writing, the characters and the passion. It was one of those novels where not only could I not put it down, but I felt apart of the story, part of the characters. Definitely, I could read this again and for that reason I am giving it 5 stars.
Profile Image for Britany.
992 reviews434 followers
July 11, 2014
Ballerinas, Barres, and Broken characters...

I became entranced with the story of Joan- a ballet dancer, never good enough to be great, but dances as though she is. She becomes involved with world famous dancer Arslan Rusakov, and she is the cog in bringing him to America in the turmoil ridden Russia during the 70s.

She unexpectedly becomes pregnant, and ends up leaving the prestigious world of ballet behind to marry Jacob Bintz, her lifelong best friend, who has always been in love with her. As her son grows up, he becomes interested in ballet and has a best friend who he is in love with too... History seemingly repeating itself... Will Harry (Joan's son) become the dancer Joan never could?

I fell in love with these characters because they all seem broken, almost like walking through a daze, carrying pieces of themselves along the long walk to the light. Almost too realistic and serious, but I enjoyed how deeply these characters grew on me and I wanted to make realizations alongside them. Elaine (Joan's best friend) was my favorite character-- strong, yet malleable, she seems to have a way with words that captures everyone else's true essence. Tougher read than I originally anticipated, but I believe this is one that will stick with me for a while…
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,680 reviews2,668 followers
January 20, 2014
A convincing psychological study of the world of competitive ballet. A dancer mourns the death of her career and the end of a passionate love affair – but her dreams may live on through her talented son.

Seating Arrangements was one of my favorite debut novels of 2012, so I jumped at the chance to read Maggie Shipstead’s new novel a few months before the official publication date of April 8th. It was rather a surprise to find that this one takes place in the high-stress world of professional ballet. I liked Black Swan about as much as the next person, but have no particular interest in dancing or competitive sports. Luckily, you don’t have to have any knowledge of or enthusiasm for ballet to enjoy Shipstead’s impressive psychological study of talent, betrayal, and parenthood over three decades.

The novel opens in New York City in 1977, with Joan Joyce resigning herself to the end of her ballet career. Her mercurial lover, Arslan Rusakov, whom she helped defect from the Soviet Union to America during the height of the Cold War, is about to marry someone else, and a pregnant dancer can only blend into the background for so long. Luckily she has her affable college boyfriend, Jacob Bintz, to fall back on. Things get strange, though, when Joan and Jacob’s son Harry also develops an obsession with ballet – especially the work of Arslan Rusakov himself.

Meanwhile, the lives of the Bintz family have become entwined with those of their southern California neighbors, Gary and Sandy Wheelock and their daughter Chloe. Gary and Sandy desperately want Chloe to be a high achiever, and with Jacob a gifted and talented program coordinator and Joan a sought-after ballet instructor, they think their daughter is in the right place to have her skills noticed. Both Harry and Chloe grow up bearing the weight of their parents’ expectations, struggling to enhance their innate talent through luck and hard work. A mutual love for ballet initially brings them together, but also threatens to drive them apart in the end. Shipstead’s every character is well-drawn, with a backstory and a plausible psychology. (I had a special fondness for Mr. K, a bisexual Russian ballet director dying of AIDS.)

Shipstead moves deftly back and forth within her 30-year time span, between Joan’s early years as a dancer and tumultuous relationship with Arslan, and Harry’s budding career a quarter century later. She also shifts effortlessly between her characters’ perspectives (using the close third person) and between New York City, Paris, Russia, and southern California, all along questioning the ways in which history repeats itself. Especially in the cutthroat world of ballet, time is a limited commodity and talented dancers are cruelly cast aside even in the prime of life. They are only nearing age 30 when Joan’s best friend Elaine muses, “one day you realize you’re not getting better, only older.”

Making the most of a second choice, or a second chance, is a theme that resonates with The Art of Fielding – another novel about professional sports and the disappointment of failure. And, like with baseball in Harbach’s novel, ballet is just the backdrop for a sophisticated study of modern life. As Harry notes in the last few pages, “dance is about age and also the contrast between the limitations of the body and the way love makes you…free.”

I was somewhat disappointed to find humor (one of the key strengths of Seating Arrangements) mostly lacking here, and I wish I could have taken a more personal interest in the ballet material, but I would still make a case for Shipstead being one of the brightest rising talents in America. And since she’s just 30 years old now, she will only get better.

Étonnez-moi, Diaghilev said to his Ballets Russes dancers: Astonish me. That search for the sublime amid the ordinariness of life – the desire to find art within the heartbreak – is one of Shipstead’s most enduring messages. I’m sure she’ll keep astonishing me with her wise and intricate novels for many years to come.

(This review originally appeared at Bookkaholic.)
Profile Image for Barbara**catching up!.
1,398 reviews805 followers
April 29, 2014
Maggie Shipstead has become one of my favorite authors. I loved her first book, “Seating Arrangements” which I found to be hilarious. “Astonish Me” establishes her as truly gifted author of many ranges. “Astonish Me” is a dramatic story encompassing the world of professional ballet and the intricate balance of a marriage.

Shipstead uses dates and places to tell her story, skipping between the 1970’s and current time. She provides pieces of history of the characters, and then where the characters are in current time. Each character is finely developed and authentic.

This is the second book I’ve read about the professional dance world. Both books prove that dancers are unkind and ruthless. Dance is beyond practicing and movement. To be the best, one must have the perfectly proportioned body, the perfect look, the perfect stage charisma. Oh, and we must not forget, the perfect skeleton that must show through the skin.

This story begins in 1977, with two ballet roommates: Elaine and Joan, watching two Russian dancers. Joan has had an affair with the male dancer, Arslan Rusakov, but he has dumped her. Joan is still heartbroken. The reader learns of Joan’s long time friend Jacob Bintz who has had a crush on Joan since grade school. Joan never felt the same towards Jacob. I found Joan to be cruel and mean towards Jacob, and I found Joan to be self serving and ruthless.

Long story short, Joan seeks out Jacob to distract her from Arslan and asks Jacob to marry her. They begin a family very quickly. They have a son, Harry, who begins a ballet career of his own, without any prodding from his parents.

When Harry becomes really good, he gains notice from many professional dancers, most notably Arslan. Joan is not pleased, and Jacob feels threatened.

It’s a story of a marriage that is not always fair. It’s a story of the complications of ballet, which aren’t always fair. It’s a story of life, which is rarely fair. It’s a great story. I LOVED it; I couldn’t put it down. It will be on the “Best of 2014” fiction lists.
Profile Image for Diane .
393 reviews13 followers
May 24, 2017
3.5 actual rating.
Wow, was I glad to finally shelve this one on my READ shelf. I bought it in 2014 and was so anxious to read it, but you all know how books can accidentally be put off. So thanks to a joint read with my GR friend, Stacey, we finally got to this, having talked about doing a joint read of it since last year, I think!

As the book started out, and pretty much towards the mid-way point, I was disappointed; I wasn't connecting and the story was lacking depth for me (and the young Joan drove me nuts). Past the midway point with about 3/4 left to go, I felt more vested and I thought it really picked up. The ending wrapped up nicely, and I was left to draw my own conclusions on one particular matter . I was also very satisfied that Harry came to the realization that he had been a "blind conceited little idiot" earlier in the story.

I think that life in the late 70's - early 80's for younger adults was accurately portrayed; others that are my age may agree that it was a much free-er and unspoiled time. I also think that the lives of ballet dancers from young to old was also probably accurately portrayed.

I liked how the storyline kept going back and forth for anyone reading this book, you need to pay attention to that. Part V, which was the final page of the book, rounded that out nicely, and I flipped back to much earlier in the book to re-read when that scene originally presented itself.

Special mention for my favorite character in this book, hands down - Elaine.
Profile Image for Melissa.
Author 10 books4,405 followers
February 20, 2022
Oh no I’m out of Shipstead books 😭😭😭
Profile Image for Dianne.
567 reviews936 followers
August 10, 2014
Spanning twenty-five years, "Astonish Me" is primarily about Joan, a modestly-talented ballet dancer whose life is changed when she encounters the brilliantly accomplished Russian dancer Arslan Rusakov in Paris. Joan helps Arslan defect to the United States. He joins her ballet company and they have a short-lived, mostly one-sided love affair, the consequences of which ripple into the future.

It took me a while to get caught up in the story. Joan is a chilly and remote character (frankly, I didn't like her at all) and the writing is somewhat mannered - it feels "overwritten" at times. Everything is analyzed and described in intricate detail; this is not a book to be skimmed. There is a rhythm/cadence to Shipstead's writing here that you need to settle into. Perhaps the meticulousness of the writing is meant to reflect the meticulousness of dance - not sure.

I loved the ballet passages and all of the details about the professional dancers. If you are a fan of the ballet, you will probably enjoy this.

Profile Image for Katerina.
832 reviews696 followers
May 30, 2017
Книжка автора, который явно умеет не неприятно ск��адывать слова в предложения, но события в сюжет, а также немного здравого смысла в него же - пока что не научился. Пока читала, думала, что брови мои останутся намертво приклеенными примерно к линии волос,

поэтому - никому не советую, а тупо пересказываю сюжет, эгегей!

И все это — серией флешбеков и воспоминаний, из которых годное только то, где юный ботан Джейкоб влюблен в задаваку Джоан и носит ее на руках на пляж.

Наверное, в здравом размышлении эта книга заслуживает больше 2, чем 3, но я word-whore и люблю, когда автор умеет хорошо разговаривать, пусть и о странных вещах. Мне кажется, ей еще немного поработать над сюжетами, перестать мнить себя Страут или Каннингемом -- и что-нибудь приличное получится.
Profile Image for Lauren.
805 reviews36 followers
April 11, 2014
If there were six stars, this would be the one. I loved this book. But I'm not sure I have the wherewithal or eloquence to write a proper review right now, given that I was up until way too late reading it last night and barely slept afterward. But I will try.

Two things you should know first, though: (1) I don't really care about ballet, or, rather, didn't until I read this book and (2) I loved Maggie Shipstead's first novel "Seating Arrangements." I had high hopes for this one, jumped on it the night the pre-ordered copy downloaded to my Kindle, and I read it in roughly 2.5 sittings -- which says a lot about the book (given that I'm usually juggling three nattering children).

"Astonish Me" follows two generations of ballet dancers and their loved ones, but the story is not told in chronological order. Instead, each chapter heading is a time and place, and we start in 1977, then move forward a year, then a few more years, then back a few, then forward again. And the result is a balletic, artistic creation of its own, in which truth is revealed to us in an astonishing, powerful way.

There is much about ballet in this book, and as I mentioned, I have never been "into" ballet. But I was fascinated by the details and the rigor and dedication and focus and single-mindedness of the dancers. But this book is not "just" about ballet. It is about relationships and love and different types of romantic love and maternal love and... the human condition, not to mention the pursuit of perfection in its different manifestations. One recurring theme is that in order to make it to the top in ballet, you have to want it and have the talent and the dedication and the body type... and Shipstead explores different combinations of that. Some characters have the desire but not the talent or the talent but not the body type.

There are about eight main characters in this book, and each is unique and well-developed and interesting, and we see at least four of them over the course of four decades.

Shipstead's prose is exquisite. Each sentence is finely wrought and polished. And her observations about human nature, contemporary society are always spot on and fresh.

Love this author! Love this book!
Profile Image for LeeAnne.
291 reviews210 followers
March 5, 2015

In August, 1989 I saw The Kirov Ballet perform a sold out show at the Kennedy Center. It was breathtaking and gorgeous. I will never forget it. Maggie Shipstead's beautifully written novel provides readers with a fascinating peek at the dark underbelly of the ballet stage, the one hidden behind the curtain: ballet's dysfunctional psychology and subculture.

Book summary:
After helping a world-famous dancer defect from Russia to the US, (think Mikhail Baryshnikov) ballet dancer Joan watches her friend's ballet career skyrocket while her own career sputters out. Joan knows that her innate talent is not perfect enough to propel her past a place in the corps, one of many. Joan will never be a soloist, so she uses an unplanned pregnancy as a convenient excuse to retire and get married. Joan does her best to extinguish her passion to dance professional ballet and she settles for a mundane suburban life of going through the motions; a life of doing, not feeling. But Joan lives for ballet and as the years go by her son evolves into a ballet prodigy and she is pulled back into the world that broke her physically, emotionally and spiritually.

My thoughts after reading this book:

Keeping Up Appearances:
In dance, appearance is everything and keeping up appearances is one of the themes in this story. The perfect wife, the perfect life, the perfect family. But looks are often deceiving. A beautiful dance might look effortless to the audience, but it never is.

Most ballet companies have “appearance clauses” in their contracts with dancers. A dancer can be fired if she gains weight, gets tattooed, gets pierced or even cuts her hair. A ballet dancer must have the right body to achieve the perfect streamlined silhouette on the stage. She must be rail thin with long legs, a short torso, a long neck, a small head, narrow hips, no breasts and "good feet". But even this is not enough. She must also have innate talent, a sense of musicality, grace of movement and a knack for remembering dance steps. She must have the drive to train and rehearse until she is sick. Even if she possess all of these traits, the odds of success are still against her.

Conformity and Freedom of Expression:
Ballet is a performing art. Ballet dancers are thought of as creative artists who express themselves through movement, but ballet dancers have their originality hammered out of them with hours and hours of monotonous, repetitive technique at the barre. In the corp, all of the dancers must look and move exactly the same; like synchronized, paper doll cut-outs. They act almost like marionettes to express the creativity of the choreographer and the artistic directors. A ballet dancer lives in fear of being fired or losing a role if she cannot conform.

Control and Perfection:
Ballet is a subculture of control. The precision of dance, the physically rigorous routines that must be perfect, the repetitive battements, self-control, anorexia. A professional ballet dancer craves control but really does not have much. A ballet director holds an incredible amount of authoritarian power over his young dancers. Intellectual education is strongly discouraged because it eats precious time away from a dancer's very short career. "Don't think, just do." Starting from a very young age, dancers spend hours a day in class rehearsing in front of mirrors, leaving them no time for a social life outside of the dance world. This isolates them from their peers outside of dance so the skewed values of the ballet world become normal to them. Dancers will subjugate everything; health, education, happiness, a social life, love; in the pursuit of aesthetic perfection. Surprise morning weigh-ins at professional studios are not uncommon as each dancer's weight is announced and recorded.

Life as a ballet dancer is a tough one. The people in this book love ballet, more than they love themselves and they are willing to risk destroying everything and everyone else for it. This is a gripping read, even for me, someone uneducated about ballet. Highly recommended.

Profile Image for Reyes.
506 reviews
March 20, 2016
I'm giving this 2 stars, but it's more like 1.5 annoyed stars. I actually finished this yesterday, but I needed some time to calm down to write a coherent review because I was so, so pissed off >_<

I picked up this book because it was about ballet, and I love ballet. Not a single cell in my body can dance, but there's something just so pretty, so astonishing (the title is the only thing this book got right) about ballet... Instead I got a bad soap opera. All the characters are so self-centred, so selfish that there was absolutely no one I liked in this book, let alone connect with them at any level. It didn't help that as the story went on the plot got more and more ridiculous, so much that by end I just wanted to be done with it.

Which takes me to actual end of the story. It was an open end. Not a cliffhanger (which I may not love, but I do understand the value of a good cliffhanger) but a think-whatever-you-want-to-think end. I so hate those. I like my ends neat and tied up with a nice ribbon, thank you very much. Seriously, I feel like open ends are a cheap way out when the story has become so ludicrous that not even the author knows what to do with it anymore, which is exactly what I think happened in this case. I'm only giving this two stars because the bits about ballet, about the sacrifice and the pain and love and mostly the passion about ballet were awesome. I just wish the rest of the story would had been that good.
Profile Image for Book Riot Community.
953 reviews159k followers
August 11, 2015
I will admit that when my book club chose Astonish Me, I was unhappy. I thought it was going to be just another book about rich white East/West coasters and their “problems.” Well, shame on me for literally judging this book by its cover. Astonish Me is a multi-generational story about ballet dancers in New York, California, and Europe, and while I liked the story, what drew me into this book was Shipstead’s transcendent writing. Somehow, this book was able to be fairly light on the dance descriptions but still make me feel like I was dancing. There was a lightness, a ballon if you’ll forgive me, to the writing that lifted up even the most unpleasant situations. It was an excellent reminder that I don’t have to like anyone in the book to love the book itself. — Jesse Doogan

from The Best Books We Read In July: http://bookriot.com/2015/08/03/riot-r...
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