'Astonish Me' Is An Artful, Elegant Dance

Apr 9, 2014
Originally published on April 10, 2014 6:46 am

"Etonnez-moi," Sergei Diaghilev, the founder of the Ballets Russes, used to say to his dancers. Astonish me. Maggie Shipstead's book of the same name does not astonish; rather, it charms. It is full of the kind of prose you want to curl up and nest in like a cat: seamless and full of small elegances.

Joan is a ballerina straining for perfection and falling short when she meets the famous Soviet dancer Arslan Rusakov. Seeing his fearless dancing "harrows her." She helps him defect, driving the getaway car and then hiding out from the paparazzi with him in a Manhattan apartment. When he throws her over, the pregnant Joan marries safe and sweet Jacob, her childhood friend, and moves to California. But when her son Harry's talent for dance becomes clear, Joan is thrust back unwillingly into Arslan's life.

Joan's frailty and elegance and Arslan's magnetism make everything that happens to them seem poignant, like part of a ballet. Even Joan's misfortunes seem pretty. Luckily, two marginal characters, Joan's unlovely neighbors Sandy and Gary Wheelock, make the novel infinitely richer with their ordinariness.

"Underappreciated Genius" Gary likes to stoutly announce that he "aced an IQ test" when he was a kid, and Sandy begrudges Joan her thinness and easy grace, pushing food on her like "she's planning to turn her into foie gras." The ordinary unhappinesses of Gary and Sandy counterbalance the epic arc of Joan's life, and showcase Shipstead's immense talent for observation.

Sandy's flirtation with ponytailed, sweaty Tim at Disneyland is irrelevant to the story but perfectly observed: "As Tim hands Joan an ice cream sandwich with great ceremony, Sandy regrets ever suggesting that he spend the day with them. With a sudden ferocity, she hates what she's wearing. The blameless shorts and sleeveless white blouse with blue buttons feel constrictive, malicious. If she were alone with Joan, she would be irked by her spoilsport habits — the way she won't drink fun cocktails ... the way she gets up at the crack of dawn without an alarm clock and stretches and exercises ... but Tim had to come along and prove how much more desirable Joan is than Sandy, even though Sandy is the one who knows how to have a good time." Then Sandy lures him onto the Matterhorn for a fumbled encounter, while Joan rides the teacups and Sandy's daughter stares from the seat in front of them.

The narrative leaps around, mostly between New York City during Joan's dancing days and California, where she lives with her family, with other abrupt stops in Chicago and Paris. In Paris she meets Arslan for the first time, waiting in his dressing room and peeling his tights off "violently, as though she were skinning an animal." "Tu m'etonnes," she tells him. You astonish me.

But Joan ends up with kind and gentle Jacob instead of Arslan, and feels her love for him grow "slowly, accumulating imperceptibly the way trace minerals in dripping water build rock structures in caves." That is how Shipstead creates this book, slowly and artfully like a pastry chef. It's a lemon tart of a book, lovely and neat.

How do you astonish, anyway? With the blunt force of ravishing prose? With a devastating plot twist? With as-yet-undreamt experimental heights? Reading Astonish Me, I didn't need to be astonished. I was happy.

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