Book Review : Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

January 6, 2015 Book review 8 ★★★

Dance books are my thing!  I’m an uncoordinated klutz but books about ballet just drawn me in like a moth to a naked flame.  So when I saw the theme of this book was about a ballerina, I was one-clicking as fast at that mouse would go!

Book Review : Astonish Me by Maggie ShipsteadAstonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group on April 8th 2014
Genres: Dance, Family Life, Realistic Fiction, Social Issues
Pages: 272
Source: Purchased
Buy on Amazon

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.

First Line of Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead:

“In the wings, behind a metal rack crowded with bundles of cable and silk flower garlands and stringless lutes from act 1, two black dashhunds lie in a basket.”

My Thoughts on Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Initially I loved it.   It was set firmly in the ballet world with that heady mix of romantic ballets and the harsh reality of manky feet and pissed off ballerinas.  I love books that capture both of those as what you see at a ballet performance is so far removed from the realities behind the scenes.  The graceful moves and slim frames you see on stage are only a front for endless work, probable eating disorders and often a restricted diet of cocaine to maintain that body

I also really enjoyed that Joan is a member of the corps.  Most other books that I’ve read feature an insanely talented prima ballerina who succeeds after x amount of setbacks.  This one was different.  Joan worked and worked and worked but at the end of the day just wasn’t good enough.  And she knows it.  I could feel the disappointment that this caused her when she accepted the futility of it all.

“It’s like there’s an empty space in the world that was meant for me, but I can’t get inside.  I can just bang on the outside.”

There is also a side story going on with Arslan, the Russian ballet dancer that she has helped to defect.  I haven’t read a lot of books with this storyline and it’s such a huge part of the ballet world during the 60s and 70s that it’s interesting to get a glimpse at how it happened.  But poor Joan!  Not only does her lack of talent ruin her longed for ballet career, it also ruins her love life as Arslan can’t accept anything less than perfection.  The romance was gritty, ugly and bleak.

I loved the early part of the book and the flashbacks to Joan’s ballet life.  However a lot of the book focuses on Joan’s life after she left all that behind.  I wasn’t quite so invested in that and the plot fell  a little flat for me then.   And I lost empathy with Joan, yes she had her dreams shattered but she turned into a bit of a mouse after that.  Her lack of drive and focus infuriated me a bit.

Overall I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it.  It wasn’t all I hoped for but it was still an insightful and engaging read.


Rating Report
Did I feel it?
Overall: three-stars


Who should read Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead?

I’d recommend this to those that like literary fiction, ballet world settings and characters that face lots of challenges.


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8 Responses to “Book Review : Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead”

    • trish

      I haven’t talked to anyone else I know that read it so I’m glad to hear that your thoughts were similar to mine. I agree Joan became very unlikable by the end and I just wanted her to do something MORE with her life.

    • trish

      I know, it definitely wasn’t a swoony relationship and the only feels it gave me was angry ones! But the ballet part of the book was fab.

  1. Lark

    I think I would love the part where she’s dancing and part of the ballet world, and lose interest in the part where she leaves it and gets married…because it’s the ballet part that fascinates me. I’m not a dancer, but like you, I can’t resist a book about it. Especially when it’s about ballet. 🙂
    Lark recently posted…From the Y Shelf…

    • trish

      It is worth reading for the ballet parts and the story of the Russian ballet dancer defecting was excellent. Just a pity that he was such a horrible character!

  2. Berls

    I JUST finished this – 2 days ago? – and though not for the same reasons i gave it a similar rating. I loved the ballet aspect, but also really enjoyed all the other side stories with Joan’s life and all. What bugged me was the way it jumped so much – every time I got invested in one pov and time period I was somewhere else. By the end though I really appreciated it, since it felt like a well choreographed dance that I just didn’t get until the last bit. And that ending!! Geez, it was so sad and poignant!
    Berls recently posted…#FitReaders Check-in Week 1

    • trish

      Funny isn’t it, how we both felt different about different parts and then had similar ratings. I didn’t mind the pov/time switches as I thought it helped the pace a bit. The ending was sad and it made me realise that I did actually care.

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