Tag Archives: Maggie Shipstead

Review: Astonish Me

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.

Get Astonish Me in hardcover for $16.41.

Or on your Kindle for $10.99.

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Review: Seating Arrangements

Recap: The wedding between Daphne Van Meter and Greyson Duff is expected to be the upstanding New England social event of the summer. The two are delightfully perfect together, two beautiful, Ivy League graduates; twenty-somethings that come from the same stature of well-off New England families. One problem: the bride is pregnant, very pregnant, seven months along to be exact. Another problem: on the weekend of the wedding — during which the novel takes place — all of Daphne’s bridesmaids are staying at the Van Meters’ New England beach house with Daphne’s parents, Winn and Biddy. Included in the bridesmaid bunch are Livia, the bride’s sister; Dominique, the exotic former roommate; Piper, the meek friend; and Agatha, the friend who also happens to be a sexy tease to all men everywhere. Oh wait — another problem: the bride and groom’s families are getting together during the two nights leading up to the wedding, and also included at those events are the groom’s four brothers the bride’s drunk aunt.

From the beginning, the reader is informed that Daphne and Livia’s father, Winn, may be harboring feelings for Agatha, the sexy bridesmaid. We also learn Winn once dated the groom’s mother. We then learn he also once kissed his sister-in-law. Throw in the three brothers of the groom, and it’s unclear which will be more of a disaster — the night before the rehearsal dinner, the night of the rehearsal dinner or the night of the actual wedding. Can the wedding planner keep the clandestine scandals of the weekend separate from the weekend’s marital plans? Debatable.

Analysis: On the surface, Seating Arrangements sounds like an exciting, juicy, scandalous beach read, and it is. But it’s so much more than that. It feels like a classic, and is scandalous in the way that Edith Wharton (The Age of Innocence, released in 1921) novels are scandalous. Author Maggie Shipstead writes the novel in such a literary way, I kept questioning whether it takes place modern-day or in an earlier time period.

As much as the story seems like it would be about a wedding, very little is about the wedding or the bride and groom. We learn more about the bride’s father, Winn, his relationship with his wife, and his relationship with his younger daughter, Livia. This is the story of a man who’s a little neurotically insane, a man who’s trying to understand all the women in his life as he — even at age 60 — is still working to figure out what kind of man, husband, and father he wants to be versus what he should be. It’s a story about family, growing old, growing apart, letting go, and learning to love the people you’re obligated to love, even if it hurts.

MVP: Livia. She is such a sad little creature, and she has so much growing up to do. But there’s something there — a natural sense of defiance and strength that makes the reader believe, especially at the end, that she’s going to be okay.

Get Seating Arrangements in paperback for $8.48.

Or on your Kindle for $7.99.

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