Book Review: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

I’ve heard a lot of buzz about Astonish Me and decided to pick it up, despite not being really familiar with the world of ballet. I’m really glad I did.

Description from the publisher:

Astonish Me is the irresistible story of Joan, a ballerina whose life has been shaped by her relationship with the world-famous dancer Arslan Ruskov, whom she helps defect from the Soviet Union to the United States. While Arslan’s career takes off in New York, Joan’s slowly declines, ending when she becomes pregnant and decides to marry her longtime admirer, a PhD student named Jacob. As the years pass, Joan settles into her new life in California, teaching dance and watching her son, Harry, become a ballet prodigy himself. But when Harry’s success brings him into close contact with Arslan, explosive secrets are revealed that shatter the delicate balance Joan has struck between her past and present.

Joan is a talented dancer, but not talented enough. Her only claim to notoriety was driving the getaway car for the best dancer in the world, Arslan Rusakov, and she pays a hefty price for it as she watches him realize that his star is only rising while hers is rapidly dimming and he moves on from her and their brief but passionate love affair. She recognizes that she is destined to be relegated to the background as a dancer and decides that an unplanned pregnancy can be her very own getaway car. So she leaves the company and ballet behind, and settles into a mundane suburban life with her friend-turned-husband, Jacob, and their son, Harry.

Mediocre talent can be ignored and cruelly brushed aside, but impressive talent cannot. Joan learns this again when Harry displays a prodigious gift for dancing and she is pulled back into the world of ballet and Arslan that she thought she was finished with.

My only exposure to ballet was a class I took when I was five years old, but I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by ballerinas and the elegance and grace they display while juxtaposed with a competitive world that demands sacrifice and talent and spits out anyone who doesn’t measure up, regardless of how much they want it. Those who shine are separated from those who do not and are left in the shadows. It’s a career that begins when you are a child and ends before 30 or 40. And then what?

Though I have never aspired to dance or become an athlete, I have always wanted to write, and this book raised questions regarding what happens to a person’s career, spirit, and feelings about themselves and the quality of their life if they are unable to achieve the acclaim and level of success they desire. To be a successful dancer or athlete or artist or writer or musician, one does not simply have to work hard. The difference between those who “make it” and those who do not can often be ascribed to an innate talent. You either have it or you don’t. You were either always going to make it or you were never going to. Most don’t. And it can be devastating.

I really enjoyed having these characters and their stories and these questions in my head for the past few days, even though the effect was a little unsettling. It’s a really beautifully written book, and I highly recommend it.

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