Tag Archives: Giftedness

“Astonish Me” by Maggie Shipstead

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

Find Astonish Me at Multnomah County Library

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“The Interestings” by Meg Wolitzer

Any group of friends, examined closely enough, is fascinating. The group at the heart of this novel, six people who meet as teenagers at an arts camp in the 1970s, decide through a mixture of hubris and ironic self-deprecation to dub themselves “the interestings.” And so they turn out to be, though not in the way they imagined. We see the group through the eyes of Jules Jacobson, an average girl with a comic spark that she might be able to parlay into the acting career of her dreams. The novel spans their lives from youth to middle age, follows the far-reaching consequences of a sudden, violent incident, and peers into the chasm between mediocrity, talent, and wasted potential.

Read if you enjoyed: The Group by Mary McCarthy, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Look for The Interestings at Multnomah County Library.