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Astonish Me: A novel
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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I've often noticed that after a first novel by a previously unheard of young writer becomes a huge hit, its author is often pressed to dash off another one lickety split while her/his name and fame is still hot.... all too often with disappointing results. Happily, that is NOT THE CASE with the brilliant young novelist Maggie Shipstead of "Seating Arrangments" fame (which I loved and recommend), But be forewarned that it's rather strangely constructed, but a good read, once you get the hang of that.

This is the story of two good friends and professional ballerinas, Elaine, whose talent cries "prima!" and Joan, who knows her talent will never take her beyond the corps de ballet, then discovers she can't even remain there, as she has become pregnant by the company's famous Russian emigre male star, and must dash home to Chicago and marry an old beau lickety split before he even thinks to question whether he's the father. The ballerinas' friendship continues as their worlds divide, with Elaine in prima roles in New York and, with age, moving on to teaching others with prima potential, while Joan, in Southern California, lives a life of suburban wife, mother and part-time teacher of ballet basics to children--foremost among them her own son, whose amazing talent will, one of these days, probably soon, attract world attention, threaten to upset the biological apple cart and destroy Joan's marriage. What to do?

Ms. Shipstead has a most unusual and frequently un-chronological way of telling this story, which opens in 1978, closes in 1973 and, in between, covers the years from 1973 to 2002, with each chapter headed by a different month and year and city. This took some getting used to--but once I got the hang of it, it was well worth it.
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52 of 58 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Admittedly, the world of professional ballet is one so far removed from my realm of experience and knowledge that delving into this novel was akin to jumping into a world-building fantasy novel for me. Okay, perhaps not that much of a leap, but I must admit that the terminology frequently baffled me and I had to resort to Google more than once.

But this is also what fascinated me. Astonish Me is the story of a professional dancer who falls madly in love with another dancer and, sadly, finds that she simply does not measure up in either her chosen career or in her lover's eyes. As so happens in life, she ends up not where she expected. In her case, as a homemaker and mother who teaches ballet on the side, while her closest friend continues practicing ballet.

The years pass, as they are wont to do, and her son grows to be a ballet dancer of the highest caliber and this provides one of the catalysts for the novel, along with her friendships, marriage, etc....and how all of this is tied to the choices she made. If this sounds very character driven, it is. But Shipstead off-sets this with a very fascinating look at the inside world of ballet. As I stated at the beginning of this review, I am in no way familiar with this world so I have absolutely no idea how authentic the details of this novel are, but that said, they were quite riveting for my mileage.
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41 of 46 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Reading this book takes the reader inside the world of professional ballet. We get a glimpse of the dancers, choreographers, the hard work that is required of the dancers every day, and the interactions between people in the dance world.

Joan Joyce is a dancer in the corps of a Paris dance troupe when she meets Arslan Rusakov, a star Russian ballet dancer. She is in immediate awe and passionate love with him and impulsively throws herself at him but he has to return to Russia. She auditions for a New York City dance troupe and is accepted. She realizes, however, that she will never be good enough to be a soloist and this eats her up. She knows she will be relegated to the corps forever. She works hard to help Arslan defect from Russia and the plan is successful. For a while they are together but eventually he leaves her for a star dancer named Ludmilla.

Joan marries a childhood love named Jacob and makes a home in southern California where she teaches ballet. She is pregnant when she and Jacob marry and they have a son named Harry who becomes a fine ballet dancer. Interestingly, Harry is obsessed with Arslan and watches his videos incessantly with his mother. He also is in love with Chloe, his next door neighbor who is studying ballet with Joan and shows great promise.

The story is predictable and the writing is somewhat vacuous. The characters are developed fairly well but something is lacking. The parts about ballet are the best part of the book. I found myself annoyed with the writing style and wished it had greater depth. I guessed the ending immediately and there was no suspense. Perhaps this is what the author intended, but I'm not sure. All in all, I can't recommend this book with much enthusiasm.
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33 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on March 7, 2014
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Maggie Shipstead whips her story through a series of graceful conflicts. ASTONISH ME is the story of dancers, but also a story of marriage, of friendship, of stereotyping, of secrets.

Joan and Elaine aspired to become the leads in New York's ballet scene. Pregnancy interrupts Joan's career. She keeps the baby. Elaine keeps aspiring, sacrificing a normal life for a dancer's life. And though Joan loves her baby, Harry, she is not so sure she loves her husband, Jacob. She knows she misses ballet, its regimen, its "otherness."

Years pass. Elaine grows as a dancer. Joan grows less tolerant of her husband's foibles, her neighbor's incessant ignorance, and her new role as a ballet teacher.

More years pass. The neighbor's child is now her student, an odd, not naturally gifted girl. That her own son seems possessed by the girl is a worry to Joan. Jacob writes the new interest off as hormones.

Things get very complicated as Harry turns to ballet, which makes him a target for anti-gay remarks from every corner. Hugely talented, the stereotype doesn't faze him. He allows himself to pick up Elaine's passion for ballet and her quest for stardom. His own mother prefers that he serve his time in the ranks.

Everything comes to light towards the end of the novel (as it should); The book is strong on character and emotion. The plotting came as me slowly, picking up its pace almost too quickly at the end. For anyone outside ballet, a glossary of terms would have been helpful.

Shipstead captures the sounds, smells, and discipline of the dancer's life without fudging about the negative: the eating disorders, the drugs, and again, for men, the stereotype of the gay dancer; for women, the horror of growing either old or "fat" or both.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 3, 2014
As an avid balletomane, I eagerly began reading this book, and at first it seemed quite promising. As it went on, however, I found it to be an unimaginative story based on events that took place in the real world in the sixties and seventies. Spoiler alert: For example, the defection was totally unbelievable, an unrealistic portrayal of the real-life Russian defectors; the dancer pulling off her clothes for ardent sex with the supposedly greatest dancer in the world? A real-life famous dancer comes readily to mind; the child prodigy turning out to be the son of that supposedly greatest dancer? C'mon, totally predictable in the plot-line, but highly unlikely in real life. A very thin plot structure with stereotypical characters.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon April 20, 2014
So many beautiful passages and fascinating information about ballet in Astonish Me. There is much to love in this book. Yet overall, I was disappointed. I adored the fresh, biting wit of Seating Arrangements, and Shipstead’s second novel strayed into a more sincere and less original direction. I also found that by switching the viewpoint from character to character throughout the book—Joan, a ballerina with thwarted ambition; Arslan, a Barishnikinov-ian dancer whom she helps to defect from the USSR; Jacob, the lovely childhood friend Joyce marries; Harry, their talented son; Elaine, a ballerina inspired by Suzanne Farrell, Ballanchine’s muse; Chloe, the girl next door to Joyce and her family, Chloe’s envious mother, Sandy and for about a page, Ludmilla, Arslan’s vengeful wife—the reader never gets to fully know any of the characters.

The author skirted a number of key points that I wished she’d developed. We never learn how Harry went from being disinterested in dance to loving it nor how/why his mother decided to open a suburban dance studio, and whether that was satisfying after nearly becoming a big-league dancer. The major plot point around which the book pivots is also transparent. The reader guesses it at the beginning of the book. And there is a bizarre marriage toward the very end.

This book did not astonish me, but Shipstead has enormous talent. I admire her for taking a chance on another kind of novel, even if it was not a 5-star success.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 17, 2014
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I have trouble resisting novels about ballet. As far as literary ballet novels go, I prefer THE CRANES DANCE by Meg Howrey. However, ASTONISH ME does have quite a bit to offer.

In a series of vignette-like chapters, ASTONISH ME covers a few decades in the life of Joan, her husband, her son, their neighbors, and Arslan Rusakov, a dance who Joan helped defect from Russia. Their lives come together and fall apart, the tangle more complicated than it first appears.

As short as ASTONISH ME is, there are still some subplots I wish had been cut. For instance, the neighboring wife and mother has a chapter of narration that's everything people mock about literary fiction: brutal observations about every character, some musings on the banality of suburban life, cheating. It does have consequences on her daughter Chloe, one of the book's many ballerinas, but none that couldn't have been accomplished in a more interesting way.

I also found ASTONISH ME disappointing as a dance novel. Many of the characters are passionate about dance, and that felt true. But there's no sense of the pain in their bodies. Their dances are sketched out, but never came to life for me. The climatic ballet left me cold. It felt like a piece of stuntcasting, everything the characters tried to promise it wasn't.

At the same time, Maggie Shipstead's writing is wonderful. It has a beautiful flow to it. For instance, I love how she describes the instant one character realizes how arrogant he used to be, upon being faced with an ex-girlfriend, or how she describes the anger in Chloe. I liked seeing the pieces of the past and the present come together, as the story is told nonlinear-ly. But I felt like the ending was rushed, with a central relationship coming out of nowhere and everything coming to a head when previously the book just moseyed along. ASTONISH ME could've had a bit more balance by cutting out some of the beginning and giving more time to the end.

I'd be willing to read another book by Shipstead, since she clearly has talent, but ASTONISH ME felt a bit paint by numbers.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on August 7, 2014
The book starts out promising, but falls flat in the end. I figured out the main character's, Joan, big secret in the beginning. So it came as no surprise to me.

I felt there were too many characters. I really didn't need to know the neighbors or how they felt about Joan's family. The characters say they have changed as time progresses, but to the contrary they show they haven't.

The book takes its time moving through the decades, but the ending felt hastily put together, like the author was tired and wanted to wrap things up quickly. The book could have used a few more chapters to clarify everything in the end.

The book wasn't bad, but neither was it great.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 15, 2014
Maggie Shipstead's debut novel, Seating Arrangements, was a funny and touching comedy of manners which chronicled a man's search for sanity and solace in the midst of the days leading to his daughter's wedding. Shipstead chose a completely different route for her second novel, Astonish Me, which focuses on the world of ballet as well as the obsessiveness of relationships and the secrets they foster.

Joan Joyce is a ballet dancer in the early 1970s. For as long as she can remember, she has lived for nothing more than to dance, and she is conscious of the sacrifices she must make to do so, knowing that time is the greatest enemy of her dancing career. Deep inside, she knows she may never be more than a member of the dance corps, but she still feels the need to give her body and her emotions fully to every dance.

"She has been trained to believe that the motions are enough. Each motion is to be perfect, repeated endlessly and without variation, strung in a sequence with other motions like words in a sentence, numbers in a code."

After a chance meeting with famed Russian dancer Arslan Rusakov, Joan is chosen by the dancer to help him defect from the Soviet Union. She doesn't understand why Arslan chose her, but she doesn't care, and she throws herself fully into the task and their subsequent affair, even though she knows she'll never fully possess him, and she has no expectations that their relationship—personal or professional—will really endure. But she enjoys the brief notoriety she receives as the dancer who helped free Arslan.

Realizing her ballet career isn't going to last much longer, she throws herself into a relationship with her close friend, Jacob, who has loved her since they met in high school. The two raise a son, Harry, and move to California, but Joan always feels as if something is missing. She keeps abreast of the ballet world through her old roommate, Elaine, who continues dancing and becomes involved with their old dance company. Joan begins teaching ballet and waits to see whether Harry will want to follow the same path she did.

Astonish Me follows Joan, Harry, and Jacob until Harry begins to realize his dance talent in his early teens. It's also the story of their neighbor, Chloe, for whom dance is also a passion, and who interacts with their world in more ways than anyone can expect. And as Harry's talent grows, Arslan comes back into Joan's life, threatening to endanger the life she has built away from those memories.

Shipstead is a really good writer, and she clearly knows her stuff regarding dance. This book had the potential to be melodramatic, but despite the slight soap opera-ish nature of the plot, Shipstead avoids the usual traps. The plot isn't necessarily surprising, and I wonder if that is why I didn't find the book particularly compelling. The characters are all flawed but their flaws don't make them more interesting, just idiosyncratic and somewhat unsympathetic.

This is a good book, not a great one, in my opinion, but if you're interested in dance, theater, and the drama that comes with the arts, you may definitely enjoy this.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on May 26, 2014
I read Maggie Shipstead's Seating Arrangements and really enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to reading her next book. I wish I could say it was another good book, but I can't. As other reviewers have said, none of the characters are likeable. I couldn't relate to them and I couldn't get attached to them and I certainly couldn't care about their lives. I struggled on - and got through about one third of the book - then I gave up. I have too many good books waiting to be read, to waste my time on a book that doesn't interest me.
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