Sunday, July 24, 2016

Review of "Astonish Me" by Maggie Shipstead

Readers familiar with books/movies about ballet will recognize many of the character types in this story - youngsters desperate to be professional dancers, older men (dancers and choreographers) taking advantage of their young charges, unfaithful lovers, and so on.

The girl at the center of this story is Joan, a so-so ballet dancer who managed - by dint of many years of lessons, practice, and sacrifice - to become a minor member of an American ballet corps. During a visit to Paris teenage Joan met Arslan Rusakov, a superstar of the Russian ballet. Joan became enthralled with Arslan and a few years later, when the Russians performed in Canada, helped him defect to the United States. A brief relationship blossomed between Joan and Arslan but Rusakov was serially unfaithful and eventually married another ballerina, breaking Joan's heart. Helping Joan navigate this drama is her roommate Elaine, an excellent ballerina who becomes the muse of bisexual choreograhper Mr. K.

Meanwhile Joan's best friend since childhood, a boy named Jacob, has been pining away for her forever. After the Arslan affair, and realizing she would never be a principal dancer, Joan gave in to Jacob's pleas and married him. They had a son, Harry, a sweet boy who seemed interested in everything in the world except ballet. In time, though, Harry developed a crush on his neighbor/playmate, a little girl named Chloe.

Joan eventually becomes a ballet teacher, and when little Chloe becomes interested in dancing this seems to galvanize Harry's interest as well. The Harry/Chloe story of two kids growing up together is a little reminiscent of the relationship between Joan and Jacob except that Harry and Chloe both get involved in ballet.

The book spans a time period of about thirty years, starting in the 1970s and ending in the late 1990s. Rather than being chronological, however, the story jumps back and forth in time, eventually revealing important events in Joan's life as well as what goes on with Harry and Chloe as they grow up.

The plot coasts along to a climax that's inevitable, though it plays out in a fashion that's not very believable. I'd categorize the book as part expose of the world of professional ballet and part coming of age story. To me the book was mildly engaging, filled with characters that behaved badly and weren't particularly likable. Just an okay book for me.

Rating: 3 stars

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