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A bravura performance: 'Astonish Me'

Astonish Me
Astonish MeA Wagner

Astonish Me, a novel by Maggie Shipstead

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Let’s hear it for Maggie Shipstead! She has followed her astonishing debut novel, “Seating Arrangements” with a dazzling sophomore effort. “Astonish Me” delights – and astonishes with every pirouette and jeté.

A leap into the world of professional ballet dancers, “Astonish Me” is the story of two generations of dancers. Joan Joyce is a dancer in the corps of a New York City ballet company. She’s good – but she knows she will never be good enough to dance out of the corps and ascend to the ranks of principal dancer.

She begins her career in Paris, where she is moved to tears while watching the Kirov Ballet star Arslan Rusakov:

But the beauty of Arslan’s dancing is not what moves Joan to cry in her red velvet aerie: it is the dream of perfection blowing through the theater. She has been dancing since before her fifth birthday, and she realizes that the beauty radiating from him is what she has been chasing all along, what she has been trying to wring out of her own inadequate body. Forgetting herself, she leans over the railing wanting to get closer. ´Etonnez-moi, Diaghilev had said to his dancers in the Ballets Russes. Astonish me.

Joan’s seduction of the star in his dressing room sets the stage for a correspondence that leads inevitably to Arslan’s defection to the West. Joan gets her 15 or so minutes of big-time Warholian fame by helping him defect in 1975. In Arslan, Shipstead has followed the lead of Mikhail Barishnikov, who defected to Canada before beginning his career as America's biggest star.

Arslan lands in Joan's company, and she has a brief, but impassioned, affair with Arslan that she knows is doomed:

A year has passed since she drove him across the border, and they remain inextricably, inconclusively enmeshed. He goes away. He comes back. More and more slowly, but he comes back. When they are alone, lying quietly, he holds her the way a child holds a stuffed animal: for comfort for security, out of a primate’s urge to cling, to close one’s arms around a warm, soft object. Eventually, she knows he will decide not to come back, but something – a force she wishes she could identify – binds her to him.

Their affair ends and Joan leaves the company to marry her childhood sweetheart Jacob. The couple eventually settles in suburban California with their son Harry, where they build a devoted family life. While Joan has abandoned her career as a dancer, she stays connected to the dance as a teacher. Harry, and their neighbor’s daughter Chloe, both show unusual promise, and both find success dancing in New York City.

Had she set out to create a dancer? If that had been her purpose, she thinks she would feel more elation at the sight of the stunning young performer now onstage, flying through his variation. She bore him, raised him, taught him, released him to New York. She masterminded every step of the process that made him what he is, but a part of her still pretends she has been passively swept up by something larger than herself. Harry’s dancing is beautiful but frightening.

Inevitably, Harry’s success as a rising star leads Joan and her family into a dangerous dance with Arslan. With Joan’s story, Shipstead has choreographed an intricate dance of love, betrayal, ambition and -- most of all -- long-buried secrets. Spanning nearly three decades, “Astonish Me” explores the inevitable dichotomy between art and family life. Shipstead has captured the onstage and offstage worlds of ballet – from the grindingly demanding search for perfection that dancers rehearse for day after day to the illusory, effortless magic of the best performances. "Astonish Me" is as magical as the performances contained within its pages. It demands a standing ovation from readers.

"Astonish Me" is available at amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.