Book Review: “Astonish Me” By Maggie Shipstead

astonish“How do people change?” Joan Bintz asks her husband, Jacob, and son, Harry, as they drive to a local performance of The Nutcracker on an evening just before Christmas. It’s an innocent-sounding question, and not one you might expect from an adult who’s lived in major cities and danced with professional ballet companies. But for Joan, whose life has been focused on the tunnel vision of her art, it’s an honest and truly perplexing question. How do people change? How do they love someone at one time and then not love them at another? What are the repercussions of such change? Astonish Me explores these ideas through the rotating perspectives of its characters: lovers, artists, and — perhaps with the most resonance in Shipstead’s novels thus far– parents and children.

Astonish Me opens with Joan as a young dancer in New York, devoted to ballet though it’s clear she doesn’t have the talent to  move beyond the corps. She has pushed aside the devotion of a high school sweetheart, Jacob Bintz, and fallen hard for Arslan Rusakov, a Russian ballet star whom she has helped defect from the Soviet Union (in a hilarious, touchingly absurd scene that may be my favorite from the book). I won’t spoil anything for you in saying that Joan and Arslan do not, in fact, end up married; she marries Jacob, who becomes a psychiatrist specializing in gifted children, and they move to southern California where they raise their son, Harry. Joan thinks she’s left ballet behind, but when young Harry’s talent for it can no longer be ignored, she finds herself pulled back into that world, which is still Arslan’s, too. The results are fantastic and unexpected, and that’s what makes this quick-moving, almost effortless novel such fun.maggie-shipstead-300x232author Maggie Shipstead

On the surface, Astonish Me reads like a delightful, witty soap opera, the kind I suspect they watch in England. There are multiple love triangles, there is jealousy, there is the glitz and glamor of professional ballet (and its less-charming undersides: eating disorders, bunion-covered feet). Underneath, there are glimmers of darkness and a world of human interaction to ponder.

A recurring theme throughout the novel is that of devotion — devotion to other people, devotion to art. There are two sets of childhood sweethearts who move through this story (first Jacob and Joan, then Harry and Chloe), their paths intertwining with consequences their sweet young minds can only, much later,  grasp. The relationships between these two pairs — because of their duration, their sense of inevitability, and the fact that both will eventually contain children — seem the most monumental of the novel. Of his childhood sweetheart, Harry thinks: “Love for Chloe lodged in him before he can remember, like a baby vaccination, and he isn’t prone to changing his mind, even though the project of loving her has become steadily more complicated.” For Joan, the lifelong project of loving Jacob has become both more and less complex, but, if nothing else, more rewarding: “She wishes she could tell him that he, the boy who helped her find her classroom on the first day of high school, is the great miracle of her life.” Events in the latter half of the novel threaten both of these relationships, and by that point I was very invested in seeing what would happen.

Devotion to one’s art is just as problematic and often less rewarding.  “I do ballet,” high-school-freshman-Joan tells Jacob the first day she meets him. “I can’t be big or old.” (This is a rather heartbreaking thing to imagine coming from the mouth of a 14-year-old, particularly if you have daughters yourself.) It’s fascinating to watch a cast of characters struggle with an art form many people would find almost obscure, and while Shipstead is aware of, and utilizes, the comic possibilities, she doesn’t exploit them  a la modern mockumentaries  (like Best in Show or Waiting for Guffman, where earnest, obsessive people vie for accolades that mean virtually nothing to a large percentage of the population). Instead she uses these somewhat weird, rareified, higher life forms (ballet dancers) to muse honestly about art, about what drives people to be the best and how cruel it can be to discover that your talents only fall somewhere in the middle. When Joan tells the ballet company manager that she’ll never be satisfied in ballet, he asks, “Who wants to be satisfied?” She shoots back, “Who wants to be tormented by their own inadequacy?”  The cruel joke on Joan is that her life’s devotion to ballet hasn’t rendered her a superstar but has been all-encompassing enough to make her uncomfortable anywhere outside it. Joan, in the real world, is awkward, somewhat of a cold fish, and not a terrific neighbor. She never cuts loose and she will never eat cake at your house. But she’s not a ballet star either. She’s stuck somewhere in the middle.

As in her lauded debut novel, Seating Arrangements, Shipstead swings great turns of phrase and scathing character indictments (or validations) with astonishing ease. It makes for rich, rewarding reading, one great revelation after another tumbling off the page. And as with Seating Arrangements, its final and most memorable rumination may be upon the relationship between parents and children. In Shipstead’s novels, parents struggle to control their agreeable, well-meaning kids , interpreting parenthood as  something between a devotion and an art.   Joan’s son Harry, as a preschooler, clings to her hand, never venturing out on his own. By his teens she has made him into a fearless, even cocky, ballet dancer with a shocking level of talent. But even she, a woman who admits that “control is everything,” can’t command what she has made. Didn’t you want this? she asks herself, stunned by his sudden coldness toward Chloe. Didn’t you make this? She’s the flip side to Winn Van Meter in Seating Arrangements, who never got quite what he wanted out of his children: daughters instead of sons, and one who humiliates himself at his former elite Harvard club, no less. Like Winn, Joan will eventually have to realize that Harry is neither a mere receptacle for her love nor a personal opus magnum to be shaped. She will have to learn to release Harry, as Winn releases Livia, “into a life of [his] own making.”

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My favorite review of Astonish Me yet, by Annalisa Quinn of NPR

Buy Astonish Me and Seating Arrangements

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