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Astonish Me: A novel (Vintage Contemporaries) by [Shipstead, Maggie]
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3.8 out of 5 stars 317 customer reviews

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Length: 369 pages Word Wise: Enabled Audible Narration:
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Editorial Reviews Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, April 2014: “Etonnez-moi (astonish me)!”--was the great ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev’s command to his collaborators and dancers, and it’s just what this insistent, subtle novel did to me. A confession: I may have been the only reviewer who was not blown away by Maggie Shipstead's best-selling debut, Seating Arrangements. So this sophisticated, intelligent novel was an astonishing discovery. On one level, it tells a straightforward story, of a young woman in the 1970s who fought her way into the professional ballet world, helped her Russian dancer/sort-of boyfriend defect, and then left the ballet, married a “civilian” and raised a son who turned out to be ballet-obsessed. But it’s also an insistent and deft look at passion and art, a book about growing up and facing your limits and getting on with life. That it’s set in the dance world--an irresistible venue even for those of us who performed neither toe nor tap--is just the bonus to a novel that already hit the jackpot. --Sara Nelson

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Languishing in the corps de ballet of a premier New York company while her lover, internationally renowned dancer Arslan Ruskov, is captivating critics and audiences, Joan becomes pregnant and reunites with her high-school boyfriend, Jacob, now a doctoral student in Chicago. Though they build a life together for themselves and their son, Harry, Joan can never escape the role she played in helping Arslan defect from the Soviet Union. As she makes tentative peace with her new status far away from the footlights as a suburban mom and strip-mall ballet instructor, Joan pins her hopes on salvaging her career relevancy as she guides her neighbor’s daughter, Chloe, to professional status. However, it is Joan’s own son who astounds everyone by becoming the sought-after new prodigy. When he and Chloe cross paths with Arslan, the finely tuned life that Joan and Jacob constructed comes crashing down as long-held secrets are exposed in a particularly brutal way. Readers who reveled in Shipstead’s sardonic comedy-of-manners debut (Seating Arrangements, 2012) will rejoice in the emotionally nuanced tale of barre-crossed lovers and the magnetic, mysterious world of professional dance. A supple, daring, and vivid portrait of desire and betrayal. --Carol Haggas

Product Details

  • File Size: 1398 KB
  • Print Length: 369 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (April 8, 2014)
  • Publication Date: April 8, 2014
  • Sold by: Random House LLC
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #55,840 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Sharon Isch TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 20, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine 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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Format: Hardcover Vine 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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Format: Hardcover Vine 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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Format: Hardcover Vine 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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