Astonish Me is a beautiful little novel, a brief treatise on love and art and talent, and also the unanswerable question of individual perspective. If one person sees you as brilliant and another sees you as mediocre, who is right? The story follows Joan, a classical ballet dancer who graduates high school in the 1970s and goes off to Paris to dance in a professional company. The story is both hers and not hers, as the choices she makes have far-reaching effects and long, permanent ripples in others’ lives. Shipstead weaves various themes throughout the narrative: the fetishization of the dancer’s body; the limits of natural ability; private life versus artistic life; and finally love and loyalty. If I have any complaint, it is that Joan’s neighbors are less three-dimensional people than hastily sketched plot devices. But the story isn’t about them–it is about the people in and around and near the ballet. Frankly, this book is begging to be adapted for a visual medium–many scenes include line after line of poses, steps, French phrases. They sound like an incantation, but as an outsider, there’s a level of understanding I can’t reach–an apt analogy for the story itself.
In any case, it is a lovely taste of the world of ballet, much darker and more heartless than I had imagined. Recommended reading for ballet aficionados, Russian defectors, and anyone whose reach exceeds their grasp.
Read if you enjoyed: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, Dancer by Colum McCann