Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Reviewed by Victoria

20140303_Astonish_Me_HB.inddIf, like me, you can dimly remember the furore that arose when Mikhail Baryshnikov defected to the United States, and if, like me, you thought he was the most extraordinary and desirable dancer you’d ever seen, then this is the story for you. The talented Maggie Shipstead begins her second novel backstage at the ballet in New York of 1977. Joan Joyce is waiting in the wings, watching her former lover, Arslan Rusakov, whom she helped to defect, partner onstage his new partner in love, Ludmilla Yedemskaya. Joan is testing out all kinds of difficult and changing feelings. She is finally healing after their painful break-up, she is contemplating the end of her career, having never proved herself as talented a dancer as she felt she needed to be, and back in a relationship with a former boyfriend from home, she is newly pregnant. She is on the cusp of a whole new phase in her life.

So Joan leaves the high-octane world of ballet and gives birth to a son, Harry. She settles into married life with Jacob, who has loved her so long and so well and been rejected so many times that he can scarcely believe his luck. And not so many years later, they move cross-country to California. Jacob works with gifted children, and is about to head up a new program there. This is interesting news to their neighbours, Sandy and Gary, who have a little girl about the same age as Joan’s son, Chloe, whom they firmly believe is gifted. ‘Their daughter observes more keenly and learns more rapidly that any child [Gary] has ever met. Gary should know, too – he was a gifted child and an excellent student until he got bored in high school and stopped trying. He’s always wished someone had challenged him.’ So the neighbours become close, although Sandy doesn’t really like Joan: she is too self-contained, too self-disciplined and too thin: ‘she suspects thin, maidenlike mothers, who might more easily find new men, of being less committed to their children than she is.’

The most fascinating aspect of this novel is its hypnotic focus on ambition, talent and commitment. Sandy and Gary  have high ambitions for their child, and Sandy behaves somewhat obnoxiously as a competitive parent, but really they are just ordinary people, lacking the steely will and self-abnegation that is fundamentally necessary to any kind of stellar achievement. As the novel hops back and forth in time, we get to see Joan as a young, driven dancer in ballet school in Paris, full to the brim of determination and passion. And yet Joan will turn out to be less talented than her American roommate, Elaine, who through the sheer luck of better bones and an indefinable spark, will make soloist. And neither of them will come anywhere near the genius and brilliance of Arslan Rusakov: ‘Arslan has elevated an entire art form. Because of him, ballet will never be the same again.’ Joan meets Arslan once in Paris, and is astonished but thrilled when he starts writing to her and singles her out as the woman to help him defect. This unexpected attention that he pays adds to her feeling of diminished self-worth, for loving him she cannot but see how unsuited she is to be his dance partner. A corruscating honesty operates at the top level of dance; those who have chased perfection single-mindedly can’t help but know what it looks like, and how far out of reach it lies.

The second half of Astonish Me considers more closely how much should be sacrificed for the sake of outstanding talent. The New York choreographer, Mr K, tells Elaine off for her self-righteous attitude towards Arslan’s defection:

‘It is not a small thing to defect. You must leave a great deal behind. Even if you are someone who has very little, you leave more than you can imagine. People close to you will suffer. They might be punished on your behalf. You must be willing to sacrifice them. You will be a traitor. You probably don’t think much about having a country, Elaine, but you would if you were leaving yours and could never return.’

As the years pass and Harry and Chloe both become obsessed with dance (and in various ways, with each other), it becomes clear that the homeland of the family is equally a place where all sorts of sacrifices – some of which will prove almost unbearable – have to be made. For Harry turns out to have that spark of genius that his mother lacked, and it will come with a price to pay.

I hoovered this book up, unwilling to put it down. There aren’t that many novels written about ballet, nor are there many written about the chase for perfection and the artistic ideal, though it’s a mesmerising topic. If I had any criticisms to make of the novel, perhaps I’d say that the story it tells doesn’t really contain any surprises. But even as I was thinking that, I was inclined to dismiss it. There is only one story when it comes to elite achievement, and dedication and sacrifice don’t produce the most comfortable and sympathetic people. For these reasons perhaps more than any others, I admired the gripping nature of this novel, its uncompromising truths and its ability to make the reader understand the hypnotic lure of perfection.

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 Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Maggie Shipstead, Astonish Me (Borough Press: London, 2015) 978-0007525409, 368 pp., paperback.

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