Friday, May 30, 2014

book review: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

The basics: Stretching from the 1970's to the early 2000's, Astonish Me is the story of Joan, a young ballerina good enough to make the corps but not good enough to ever be a star. Joan's story is told in chapters and vignettes that move back and forth in time.

My thoughts: As someone who has little coordination and even less grace, my fascination with ballet and dance truly stems from appreciation. Maggie Shipstead clearly shares my fascination with ballet, and the characters in this novel are at times both reverent and critical about ballet. These complicated feelings about ballet extend into the characters' lives too, and Shipstead's prose is astonishingly good.

For so much interior insight, there is also a lot of action. Joan is at the center of this novel, but the secondary characters are actually more intriguing. From Joan's roommate and fellow dancer Elaine, to Russian defector Arslan Rusakov, to Joan's husband and son, as well as her neighbors, Joan is enhanced by each secondary storyline.

Shipstead's observational writing reminds me of Curtis Sittenfeld and Susanna Daniel (all three are graduates of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, for what it's worth.) I'm a reader who likes to know it all: I want plot, but I want to understand each character's feelings and perspectives. Shipstead delivers, and the non-chronological structure adds layers and layers of emotion, knowledge and understanding for the reader without, thankfully, distracting from the narrative itself.

Favorite passage:  "When they are alone, lying quietly, he holds her the way a child holds a stuffed animal: for comfort, for security, out of a primate’s urge to cling, to close one’s arms around a warm, soft object."

The verdict: Astonish Me is a novel that feels so much bigger than its pages. It's a family saga of sorts, but it's greatest achievement is in combining a compelling plot with well-developed characters, and both are as good as they are thanks to Shipstead's wise, observant, and descriptive prose.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 273 pages
Publication date: April 8, 2014
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Astonish Me from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle edition.)

Want more? Visit Maggie Shipstead's website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!


  1. 4.5. Hmm. I love books that center around dance. I cracked my shin as a kid and my parents never took me to the doc. Because of it, my foot and turnout needed correction. The doc told me to take ballet so I did for four years. Corrected the problem and now I have the most awesome turn out ever. I wish I had the body to match. LOL.

  2. I have to suck it up and get past the cover on this one.

  3. Sounds like a great read! I love novels that center around art, and I'm totally willing to extend that love to novels about dance!


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