Recap: Talk about scandal taking center stage. When Joan Joyce, a young up-and-coming professional ballerina, meets famed international ballet superstar Arslan Rusakov, a brief romance sets them on a journey neither of them expect. They meet in the 1970’s in Paris, as Joan is working to get her not-so-perfect ballet feet wet. While Arslan is one of the most talented, Joan is not. But there is something about her that astonishes Arslan, and he relies on her to help him deflect and smuggle him into the United States. Their romance ends soon thereafter, as does Joan’s career. She teaches ballet, but leaves Arslan, her best friend Elaine, and the world of professional dance behind.
Joan goes on to marry and raise a son, who has his own knack for ballet, in California. She teaches him ballet, as well as her son’s friend/neighbor/crush. The kids become points of pride for Joan, proving her to be a talent when it comes to teaching ballet. But both Joan and her husband have mixed emotions when faced with the idea that the children may one day surpass Joan with more successful professional dance careers, and that it could lead Joan back to Arslan at some point. While the act of ballet is physical, dance weighs heavier on the hearts and minds of these families than it does on their feet and muscles.
Analysis: When this novel came out earlier this year, all any of the reviews talked about was what a phenomenal writer author Maggie Shipstead was. Each review mentioned her debut novel, Seating Arrangements — which I immediately borrowed from a friend — and said that Astonish Me wasn’t quite as good as Seating Arrangements, but was a very close second. I have to agree.
Like Seating Arrangements, Astonish Me tells an intricate story of a family whose lives revolve around a certain categorized system of social class. In Seating Arrangements, it’s that of a prep school/Ivy League crowd. In Astonish Me, it’s a ballet crowd. And similarly to her debut novel, Astonish Me relishes in the scandals amongst its characters, in the complex weaving of relationships, almost as twisted as a pair of lace-up pointe shoes. But Shipstead’s writing makes the story less trashy and more scandalous in the way that many love-driven classic novels are written, like those by Edith Wharton or Jane Austen.
MVP: Joan’s best friend, Elaine. Even though Joan is more of the titular character, the woman around whom the novel revolves and the woman who “astonishes,” she comes across as mostly plain, drab, and unremarkable throughout the novel. Elaine is the strongest female character of the book, an independent woman who both knows and does what she wants.