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Astonish Me (Vintage Contemporaries) Paperback – January 6, 2015
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"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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“So dazzling, so sure-handed and fearless, that at times I had to remind myself to breathe.” —Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette
“A novel you must read.” —Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“I will be paying close attention to Shipstead’s career from here on in.” —Jeffrey Eugenides
“A breathtaking work of art.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Precise…. Flawless…. Transcendent.” —Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“A grand arabesque into the world of dance. . . . Thrilling.” —Time
“Electrifying. . . . Astonish Me shines.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“The inner lives of [Shipstead’s] characters feel as real and immediate as the shifting settings they inhabit: still-gritty mid-1970s Manhattan, shabbily elegant Paris, the sunbaked suburban sprawl of Southern California. . . . Shipstead’s youth may be a talking point, but her talent transcends it. She’s astonishing.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Seamless and full of small elegances . . . Lovely. . . . Reading Astonish Me, I didn’t need to be astonished. I was happy.” —Annalisa Quinn, NPR
“A searing rumination on insecurity, secrecy, and friendship. . . . Shipstead nails the details of being perpetually en pointe” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Maggie Shipstead takes hold of the reader and doesn’t let go. Astonish Me is a haunting, powerful novel.” —Dani Shapiro
“Sardonic and insightful. . . . [Shipstead] does caustic humor, simmering hostilities, and social envy well.” —New York Times Book Review
“Deeply engrossing . . . [A] thoughtful meditation on the relentless pursuit of perfection and just how far we’re willing to go for love.” —BookPage
“A bravura display of high-performance art, the only constant its quest for perfection.” —The Guardian (London)
“The emotionally nuanced tale of barre-crossed lovers and the majestic, mysterious world of professional dance. A supple, daring, and vivid portrait of desire and betrayal.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Shipstead’s insights into human nature take center stage. The story’s surprisingly satisfying outcome encourages us to accept imperfection and even take refuge in doing so.” —Nylon Magazine
“Bold and thrilling. . . The way the characters come together in new and surprising pairings is one of the book’s many pleasures.” —Boston Globe
“Full of delights. . . . Maggie Shipstead is a writer to watch.” —The Washington Times
“Impressively sure-footed .” —Elle
“Sharp and memorable . . . Full of the kind of keen observations about people and relationships that made her first book, Seating Arrangements, one of 2012’s most delightful literary surprises.” —San Diego Union-Tribune
“Exhilarating.” —Columbus Dispatch
“Spans continents, decades, and generations . . . . A total pleasure to read.” —The Rumpus
About the Author
Maggie Shipstead is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Her first novel, Seating Arrangements, was a New York Times best seller, a finalist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and the winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction.
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Joan and Jacob have known one another since high school. Each are equally driven by their careers. Joan pursues ballet and Jacob pursues education. While they stay in touch by letters, Joan is happy to continue with her career until something drastic happens. She meets world famous ballet dancer Arslan and has a relationship with him. Is there a future or will she turn to her old friend Jacob? Joan becomes pregnant and produces a son Harry. He becomes friends with his neighbor Chloe and wants a relationship. Will dance help him pursue both Chloe and his future? What happens when the truth comes out about Harry’s real father?
I love dance! It is my favorite form of exercise. I liked Astonish Me! By Maggie Shipstead. The novel didn’t keep my interest throughout. The book was researched well. I read that the author spent time in Paris researching the subject of ballet. Many authors use various forms of the internet for research as well. The plot is character driven and told by the many characters in the novel.
It asks the question do you have what it takes to pursue your passion?
The story, itself is interesting, but not particularly original (but maybe as an '8o's child, stories of the collapse of communism, just feel familiar to me). The true strength of this book is in the characters. As I looked at Shipstead's writing and tried to break down why it was so good and satisfying - I realized that she writes in these wonderful "narrative nuggets." She writes whole paragraphs of pithy description that give you the essence of a character, a sense of time and place (that is no easy feat given the 25 year span of the novel) and a sense of momentum. She also writes these paragraphs in such a way for each character that it feels like them. This is most notable in Elaine who, for me, was the strongest character. Shispsteads's writing takes on a crispness and directness with the Elaine chapters that totally puts you in Elaine's head. With Joan there is a certain ambivalence and slow contentment as the book builds to its conclusion. For Jacob there is an air of bewilderment moving towards acceptance.
Then there is the dancing, always the dancing, that cocoons the whole book in it's own little bubble. Shipstead says more than once and make its clear throughout that the world is divided into dancers and non-dancers. Reading this book, knowing the characters makes you feel like you are a part of the club and in on the secret. And it is a secret that drives the novel and even though it is an open sort of secret, you don't feel clever for having figured it out early you feel like Elaine who knew it all along and waited like a sage for it to unfurl on its own. This feeling of being in on it combined with the beautiful writing made for an incredibly satisfying read.
In the center of this classic ballet story is Joan who is not good enough. She is not only short of her own deeply pursued dream, she is also not good enough to solo. She is in the corps, the chorus. Yet Arslan chooses her to help him escape from Communist Russia. He tries to teach her to dance with him. He turns to her often. The prima dancers do not understand, the socialites do not understand, and the world is mystified. The tension of the dream against the reality of performance and of life runs throughout the lives of all the characters in the book. While it is ballet that demands what is not possible, the life off the stage is also prone to the same tension.
I love ballet, but I found the implicit assumptions wearying at times. Joan and her more gifted friend Elaine have not had a cheeseburger since the age of five. Despite the real world fact that ballerinas do in fact struggle to maintain their mandated wispy bodies, these dancers view bodies in degrees of thinness. They are all beautiful in their own way. They assume the neat, compact form of the ballet dancer. The anorexia and injuries that plague ballet corps testify to the fact that this slender body type is not to be assumed. Shipstead does understand the anguish of the dancer struggling against body type. Women are born with hips already dicated by genes. One dancer notes that American ballet schools are cruel not to take x-rays before acceptance to the school. The classic turn out at the hip and the suppleness of leg are not attainable by everyone no matter how determined. This part is well written.
Diaghelev had famously said to his dancers, "Astonish me." This book shines in its portrayal of the cost of that pursuit.