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Astonish Me

(One Story Literary Magazine #189)

3.58  ·  Rating details ·  15,938 ratings  ·  1,913 reviews
From the author of the widely acclaimed debut novel "Seating Arrangements," winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize: a gorgeously written, fiercely compelling glimpse into the passionate, political world of professional ballet and its magnetic hold over two generations.
"Astonish Me" is the irresistible story of Joan, a ballerina whose life has been shaped by her relationship wit
Paperback, 272 pages
Published January 6th 2015 by Vintage (first published January 6th 2014)
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Lynda I'm loving the audio edition of Seating Arrangements - loving it. I think it's extremely well-written, and I'm a critical reader. I came here to see w…moreI'm loving the audio edition of Seating Arrangements - loving it. I think it's extremely well-written, and I'm a critical reader. I came here to see what else she's written.
Nancy Shipstead accurately captures the devotion to ballet that is required to star. The author portrays the struggle between trying to achieve one's dream …moreShipstead accurately captures the devotion to ballet that is required to star. The author portrays the struggle between trying to achieve one's dream and accurately assessing one's limitations. I think Shipstead's story and her characters ring true. Having some background in ballet enhances the reading of the novel as one pictures the moves described throughout.(less)

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Average rating 3.58  · 
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Ron Charles
Nov 13, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: novels-about-art
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 ba
Nov 29, 2013 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 kno ...more
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" fact
Jun 01, 2015 rated it liked it

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 Arsla
May 03, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 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. (view spoiler)
Mar 11, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 frien
Jul 18, 2018 rated it liked it
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 da ...more
Ash Wednesday
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 ca
Diane S ☔
May 01, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 w
Doug Bradshaw
Apr 18, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Angela M

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
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 ...more
``Laurie Henderson
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 main 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
Julie Ehlers
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-swi ...more
Violet wells
Apr 11, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 21st-century
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 ...more
Apr 27, 2014 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
"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 wond ...more
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 beco
Apr 15, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
May 02, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: buddy-read, bookriot, botn, mmd
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 h
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
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
Jan 31, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: best-of-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'
Apr 08, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reread
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
Apr 02, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literary-fic

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 fri
Mar 16, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
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
4 Stars for Astonish Me (audiobook) by Maggie Shipstead read by Rebecca Lowman. This was an interesting glimpse into the world of ballet. There wasn’t a lot plot to the story but I enjoyed the in-depth look at what it is like to be a professional ballet dancer.
Apr 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I've thought a lot about what it is about Maggie Shipstead's writing that elevates it to what I believe is some of the best of her generation (a female Cheever or Roth or Updike, she is indeed). Like, WHAT IS IT that makes her writing SO damn good? And I think it's this: The entire time I read Astonish Me, I never once thought there was "too much try" to her work—-not even a hint of it. There are some writers out there who, in their effort to keep up with all the accolades and buzz (and there ha ...more
Book Riot Community
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 descri ...more
May 30, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobooks
A very long ehhhhhhhh. I mean, this was kind of interesting and really better than a two-star book. It kept me mildly engaged on audio, so I guess it did the job. But I can't really rave about it.

This is the story of a professional ballerina, Joan, who has an ill-fated affair with the fabulous male ballet dancer Arslan Rusakoff (probably modeled after Baryzhnikov). Joan helps Rusakoff defect from Russia in the 70s and launches into a passionate romance with him, but Rusakoff is your classic narc
Mar 15, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Fans of family dramas and ballet
Recommended to Imi by: Leanne
I found Shipstead's first novel, Seating Arrangements, hugely disappointing and I was half expecting to give up on this novel within the first few chapters. However, I was willing to give it a go, because I had feeling that I could really enjoy Shipstead's writing if only she wrote about characters that I found more interesting.

Thankfully, this turned out to be the case. In some ways, Astonish Me has a lot in common with Seating Arrangements, namely Shipstead's lovely, flowing writing style and
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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 ...more

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“How strange it was that a dream, once realized, could quickly turn mundane.” 18 likes
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