By Maggie Shipstead
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9780307962904, 272pp.)
Publication Date: April 8, 2014
Other Editions of This Title: Compact Disc
Enter your zip code below to find indies closest to you.
From the author of the widely acclaimed debut novel Seating Arrangements, winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction: a gorgeously written, fiercely compelling glimpse into the demanding world of professional ballet and its magnetic hold over two generations.
Astonish Me is the irresistible story of Joan, a young American dancer who helps a Soviet ballet star, the great Arslan Rusakov, defect in 1975. A flash of fame and a passionate love affair follow, but Joan knows that, onstage and off, she is destined to remain in the background. She will never possess Arslan, and she will never be a prima ballerina. She will rise no higher than the corps, one dancer among many.
After her relationship with Arslan sours, Joan plots to make a new life for herself. She quits ballet, marries a good man, and settles in California with him and their son, Harry. But as the years pass, Joan comes to understand that ballet isn’t finished with her yet, for there is no mistaking that Harry is a prodigy. Through Harry, Joan is pulled back into a world she thought she’d left behind—back into dangerous secrets, and back, inevitably, to Arslan.
Combining a sweeping, operatic plot with subtly observed characters, Maggie Shipstead gives us a novel of stunning intensity and deft psychological nuance. Gripping, dramatic, and brilliantly conjured, Astonish Me confirms Shipstead’s range and ability and raises provocative questions about the nature of talent, the choices we must make in search of fulfillment, and how we square the yearning for comfort with the demands of art.
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.
For our latest installment of the occasional feature Weekend Reads novelist Alexander Chee tells NPR's Rachel Martin about Maggie Shipstead's novel Astonish Me. More at NPR.org
NPR Audio Player Requires Flash Upgrade: Please upgrade your plug-in to view this content.
Maggie Shipstead tells the story of a disciplined dancer who can't make it into the spotlight. Critic Maureen Corrigan says Shipstead is "Edith Wharton with a millennial generation edge." More at NPR.org
NPR Audio Player Requires Flash Upgrade: Please upgrade your plug-in to view this content.
“Flawless . . . Tightly choreographed . . . Shipstead gains entry into exclusive worlds and trains her opera glasses on private social rituals, as well as behind-the-scenes hanky panky . . . Similar to classic ballet, the power of Astonish Me arises out of the pairing of a melodramatic storyline with scrupulously executed range of movement . . . Shipstead sweeps you into this insider world of sweat, narcissism, and short-lived magic . . . Transcendent.”
—Maureen Corrigan, NPR
“This is a novel you must read. . . Shipstead still has her flawless sense of timing and a sensitive ear for the muffled flutterings of hope and desire . . . Intensely compelling. . . Shipstead has captured the mercurial flow of artistic genius, the way it sanctifies some lives even as it condemns others, all of them stretching toward that perfect beauty just out of reach.”
—Ron Charles, Washington Post
“Elegant and forceful . . . Vivid and convincing . . . Bold and thrilling . . . As in ballet, some of the drama is slyly withheld offstage, heightening the suspense, so the narrative unfolds in choreographed bursts of precision and exuberance . . . The way the characters come together in new and surprising pairings is one of the book’s many pleasures, and it sets the stage for a cruel, but inevitable heartbreak.”
“Sardonic and insightful . . . Shipstead has admirably absorbed ballet’s vocabulary of steps . . . She does caustic humor, simmering hostilities, and social envy well . . . The novel’s most fascinating relationship is . . . between Elaine and Mr. K—a nearly two-decade push-pull of artistic need, devotion, and dependency, a partnership that, as Elaine matures, transforms from something seemingly reckless into a bond that is deep, tender, and rare.”
—New York Times Book Review
“Gripping . . . Effectively dramatizes the tensions between family and career, perfectionism and compromise . . . Shipstead rises to the challenge of evoking the excitement of dance, and her descriptions are all the more powerful for emphasizing the hard work behind the grace.”
—The New Yorker
“Deeply engrossing . . . Dazzles with vivid imagery and startling turns of phrase . . . Like the prima ballerina at the heart of the novel itself, Shipstead delivers a glorious story that does exactly what it says it will . . . A deeply thoughtful meditation on the relentless pursuit of perfection and just how far we’re willing to go for love . . . Proves that Shipstead’s star is still on the rise as she pushes herself to exhilarating new heights . . . As nuanced and delightful as any reader could ever hope for a book to be.”
“Dazzling . . . Maggie Shipstead’s thrilling second book, Astonish Me, is an homage to, and exposé of, the exhilarating, punishing world of ballet; it’s also a searing rumination on insecurity, secrecy, and friendship . . . Shipstead nails the details of being perpetually en pointe: the adrenaline rush after a performance, the intimate atmosphere of the dressing room, the nagging feelings of inadequacy, the erotically charged and emotionally cruel competitiveness, and the inability to shake perfectionism long after retirement. Like a brilliant choreographer, she has masterminded a breathtaking work of art.”
“Impressively sure-footed . . . Shipstead’s new novel, Astonish Me, swaps the privileged world of private-school prepsters that populated her best-selling debut, Seating Arrangements, for the equally rarefied realm of professional ballet—brilliantly exposing its dark, slavish underbelly with insight and panache . . . Shipstead’s handling of her characters is supple and satisfying. The triumphs and mistakes they make onstage mirror the movements and missteps they make offstage.”
“Dispels any idea that Shipstead is some kind of one-trick preppy . . . Nearly every sentence here lands with a bull’s-eye thwock of emotional truth, and the inner lives of her characters feel as real and immediate as the shifting settings they inhabit . . . Shipstead’s youth may be a talking point, but her talent transcends it. She’s astonishing. Grade: A-.”
“Graceful . . . Electrifying . . . Moves nimbly through time and points of view . . . Shipstead depicts the physical sacrifice of dancers without romanticism or pity . . . Highly artful, and insightful too . . . Spins a new fantasy based on an already fantastical realm . . . Astonish Me shines.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“A grand arabesque into the world of dance . . . Shisptead isn’t interested in the straightforward answers . . . [She] succeeds at capturing the messy, intimate drama of domesticity: furtive glances exchanged over dinner tables, after-hours pillow talk, the different breeds of jealousy that lurk among friends, lovers, rivals, and spouses . . . By studying how Joan, Arslan, and other satellite characters orbit around one another, the book examines the lengths people go to (or don’t) to be perfect . . . Thrilling.”
“Full of the kind of prose you want to curl up and nest in like a cat: seamless and full of small elegances . . . Showcase[s] Shipstead’s immense talent for observation . . . Shipstead creates this book slowly and artfully like a pastry chef. It’s a lemon tart of a book, lovely and neat . . . Reading Astonish Me, I didn’t need to be astonished. I was happy.”
“Accomplished . . . Immersive . . . Shipstead’s astute, nimble writing barely misses a beat . . . The fragility and shifting dependency of relationships are scrupulously exposed . . . This is a bravura display of high-performance art, the only constant its quest for perfection.”
“Quietly mesmerizing . . . Sharp and memorable . . . Like the ballet she writes about, Shipstead is an elegant writer, nimble and sophisticated . . . 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 . . . Its truths resonate.”
—San Diego Union-Tribune
“Exhilarating . . . Alternates high drama and emotional excess with the small tensions and compromises of everyday life . . . Shipstead displays a wry wit . . . and she recognizes the subtle tones of emotional relationships . . . She is daring enough to hang her plot on a secret that won’t surprise any reader, as if she’s shaping the novel like a dance, in which plot is either obvious or irreverent. The shock is that it works. Her characters are so compelling that the melodrama they are collectively performing can’t overshadow the details that make them seem alive.”
“Like watching a lone skater glide across a barely frozen lake, the immaculate pirouettes and pliés that make up Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me thrill in their precarious perfection . . . 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: granting not just permission to allow the ice to crack, but to force it to.”
“Endlessly fascinating . . . Elegant . . . Keen . . . Spans continents, decades, and generations . . . Familiar from Shipstead’s first novel is her beautiful prose style and incredible knack for social observation . . . A total pleasure to read.”
“Nuanced and revealing . . . Marvelously controlled . . . The infused tensions of life in the hothouse of a ballet company are perfectly captured . . . Shipstead is a beautiful writer.”
—New York Daily News
“Shipstead takes readers on a dazzling tour inside the alluring world of professional ballet, a world that is simultaneously exquisite and dangerously cruel. It’s an intoxicating world of art, beauty, sweat, romance, jealousy, and restraint.”
“Astonish Me has a kinesthetic energy, not unlike that of a dancer performing . . . An enjoyable meditation not only on ballet, but on desire, ambition, and love.”
“Thrilling . . . Illuminates the ballet world’s relentless pursuit of perfection . . . equal parts brutality and beauty . . . Shipstead’s characters move in constant, unfolding ensemble with one another. They are staged, in the best sense. Even as their true loves, betrayals, foibles, and triumphs feel inevitable and destined, they also feel bold and true.”
“Eloquent . . . Fascinating . . . The novel skips back and forth in time from the mid-1970s to the final act in 2002, all the while building tension and exposing secrets . . . Well-drawn and alluring.”
“The story is riveting, and the reading experience is enhanced by Shipstead’s beautiful prose style and sensitive, emotional nuances throughout.”
—Hudson Valley News
“Impressive . . . This novel is full of delights: those vivid scenes of New York, the evocation of the exigencies of the ballet, a rich sense of how people get along with each other and become serious friends. Maggie Shipstead is a writer to watch.”
“As a former ballerina, I can’t put down Maggie Shipstead’s new book, Astonish Me.”
“Readers who reveled in Shipstead’s sardonic comedy-of-manners debut will rejoice in 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)
“Explosive . . . Shipstead moves her story back and forth in time with the same seamless precision found in the details of a beautiful ballet, capturing the brutality of the training, the impossible perfection on stage, and the messy fallout that erupts when personal and professional lines blur.”
“Shipstead’s prose moves fluidly through settings as varied as a ballet rehearsal and a suburban backyard, and her characterizations are full. The story proceeds with a quiet insistence that is matched by the inevitability of its denouement.”
“Etonnez-moi, Diaghilev famously challenged Jean Cocteau: ‘Astonish me.’ That’s a fair description of what Maggie Shipstead did to me on nearly every page of this impressive novel. Like its subject, the ballet, this book is intricately choreographed, technically demanding, yet seemingly relaxed, written in a prose of great emotional range and acuity. I will be paying close attention to Shipstead’s career from here on in.”
“In this exquisitely rendered story of love, loss, betrayal, secrecy, and artistic ambition, Maggie Shipstead takes hold of the reader and doesn't let go. Astonish Me is a haunting, powerful novel.”
“Maggie Shipstead’s prose is so graceful and muscular, so dazzling, so sure-handed and fearless, that at times I had to remind myself to breathe. Astonish Me is a treasure of small surprises.”