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Astonish Me


Astonish Me

I am a certifiable balletomaniac. Not only am I in class three times a week, but I devour dance magazines and books, go to performances, overindulge in new leotards, and in general manifest behavior that most women leave behind when they graduate from girlhood tutus and recitals. I simply love it.

So I was elated when this book, its cover crossed with pink ribbons --- just as on pointe shoes --- arrived in my mailbox. Maggie Shipstead has been praised in literary-fiction circles for her previous prize-winning novel, SEATING ARRANGEMENTSso I was eager to see what she would do with the world of classical dance. All too often, soap opera seems to take over when filmmakers or writers step up to the barre.

Not here. ASTONISH ME’s very title is a reference to serious dance history, for “Étonne-moi” is what famed impresario Sergei Diaghilev said to poet Jean Cocteau when the latter set out to write a ballet scenario. The radical result was Parade, a surreal 1917 creation by the likes of Picasso, composer Erik Satie, and choreographer Leonide Massine. I saw a reconstruction by the Joffrey Ballet in 1979, part of a Diaghilev-inspired program starring Rudolf Nureyev.

Nureyev was, of course, a prime example of dancers’ ability to “astonish” audiences with their grace and prowess. So was Mikhail Baryshnikov. Shipstead was evidently inspired by the latter’s 1974 defection in Toronto, for she creates a superstar Russian danseur named Arslan Rusakov, who goes the same daring route. The driver of his getaway car is Joan Joyce, a young American dancer with whom Arslan had a brief affair when her company was in Paris.

"[T]here is a great deal of subtle and effective writing in ASTONISH ME... Most important, it never falls into the melodrama trap.... Shipstead keeps the tone unsentimental and cool."

Yet the essence of the novel is not the spectacle of Arslan’s leap to the West, but the divide between dancer and nondancer, and the way patterns appear and reappear through the generations (the book spans three decades, from the 1970s to the 1990s). Shipstead brings this idea to life through the parallel and opposing stories of Joan and her roommate, a more gifted dancer (and cocaine-snorting party girl) named Elaine Costas. After the defection, for a brief time Joan has “a flare of fame” through her association with Arslan, but, sadly realistic, she knows that “when the political drama settles and there is only dancing, she will not be able to keep up.” Thus, she and Elaine make starkly different choices (not unlike Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft in The Turning Point).

When Joan falls pregnant, she drops out of ballet, marries Jacob, her high-school swain; has a son, Harry; and moves to Southern California. Interestingly, while Joan comes off as pathetic and insecure compared to Arslan and Elaine, to Jacob and other nondancers she remains, even in retirement, a glamorous figure. Elaine stays in New York, the muse and sometime lover of the director/choreographer of the company, Mr. K. (obviously a stand-in for George Balanchine, founder of New York City Ballet and known as Mr. B.), and becomes a principal dancer. 

The contrast between them has only become more obvious by the time their paths cross again in the 1980s: Elaine “had wondered if she would feel jealous of Joan with her family and easy life, but she feels only pleasure in her own existence, her freedom from the ordinary.” Joan, meanwhile, sees that her friend, at 31, “has grown harder. Her voice, her eyes, her bones. Elaine’s is the minimalist body of the survivor. She has reduced herself to the most essential pistons and gears.” Later still, when Elaine visits Joan after Mr. K’s death (she nurses him through the agonies of AIDS), she comes off as “a tourist from Balletland who doesn’t know the most basic local customs,” flouting conventional mores by smoking marijuana by the pool while teenage Harry watches.

And yet, Joan doesn’t really leave ballet behind. She starts teaching, the classic ex-dancer route, and her star pupil is Harry (and his youthful crush object, Chloe, a neighbor’s talented daughter). Thus, the book’s plot resembles a giant circle. In the 1970s, Joan danced with a company in New York, then went west with Jacob; in the 1990s, Harry, who grew up in Southern California, ends up in New York, ultimately in the same company. And his idol and mentor? None other than Arslan Rusakov.

It’s a nicely symmetrical story, perhaps a bit contrived toward the end, but the way Shipstead presents it gave me fits. I understand that she is avoiding conventional chronological structure on purpose --- the narrative jumps back and forth between decades, and she doles out snippets of earlier history a little at a time --- in order to emphasize the convergence of past and present in Joan and Elaine’s lives. However, it is often deeply disorienting, despite copious signposting, and sometimes undermines the story’s dramatic impact (for example, she cuts away from the dance world almost immediately at the beginning of the novel; the defection isn’t even described until Part II). Too many narrators further confuse matters; Joan and Elaine would have been enough.

Still, there is a great deal of subtle and effective writing in ASTONISH ME, even if the whole doesn’t entirely add up. Most important, it never falls into the melodrama trap. Ballet is neither idealized nor portrayed as a den of masochists and sadists (Black Swan, anyone?); Shipstead keeps the tone unsentimental and cool. Judging from her bio, she has never been a dancer herself, so she writes about the world largely from the outside in, somewhat like an anthropologist observing an exotic tribe.

Ballet is portrayed as a curious and seductive subculture with its own rituals, traditions and costs --- exclusive in the sense that a “civilian” like Jacob is shut out. Joan, with her careful eating, held-in emotions, daily barre work, and resistance to Disneyland-type all-American fun, never loses the marks of a ballerina’s iron discipline. Elaine, who doesn’t leave the clan at all, ends up alone and wedded to her art, Mr. K’s natural heir. And Harry and Chloe, new entrants to ballet’s harsh and exhilarating world, inevitably echo their elders even as they begin their own dance through life.

Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on April 24, 2014

Astonish Me
by Maggie Shipstead

  • Publication Date: April 8, 2014
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0307962903
  • ISBN-13: 9780307962904