Here is a quote from Astonish Me, a novel by Maggie Shipstead, that made me smile and then reach up and dog-ear the page:
As she pulls open the door to the ballet school, she sees Joan through a studio’s big window, facing the mirror, leading a class of adult women, moms looking for exercise and for some trace of girlhood dreams. They are ungainly in their leotards, wearing slippers, not pointe shoes, and not turned out. But the sight of them is touching, triggers a gloating pride in Elaine that these women wish to do what she does.
Oh Snap, Adult Women! Did You Hear That?! Ungainly! Gloating! I heard that.
Elaine is not the main character of Astonish Me, but she is my favorite, in part because the actual main character, Joan, kind of pushes the reader away. Even when presented in third person observer mode, Joan’s story manages to seem like it’s being not quite honest.
Which made it hard for me to get into this book. I read along kind of not invested-ly until about sixty pages in, when Jacob, Joan’s husband, explains to Joan only slightly in jest that she has no empathy, she’s a sociopath, and then I was like “aha! I’m not even supposed to like the main character, how bizarre!”
It reminded me a little of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which featured a set of characters so repulsive I kept checking the author’s name to see if the author was a man angry at women, or a woman angry at men, and yet it was set in a world as intriguing and just as insular as the world of ballet.
Astonish Me begins with the end of Joan’s career as a dancer. Joan sees the limits of her talent and understands that she will never be more than a member of the corps, so she parlays a pregnancy into a sort of honorable discharge from ballet.
Basically, she breaks up with ballet before it can break up with her.
We spend the book going forward and backward in time, putting together the whole story, from New York in the 70’s, through Paris, Chicago, suburban Southern California, and round-trip back to New York in the 2000’s
There’s a twist ending, but you will have seen it coming by halfway through the book, and you will think No, Surely There Is A Counter-Twist, but there’s not, which is ok because the real strength of this book is in all the different partnerships and pairings and balances and imbalances of power.
Details are: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead, copyright 2014, published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC, New York, a Penguin Random House Company
Available for purchase April 8th (that’s yesterday!)
And here’s the disclaimer:
Disclaimer: I received a free advance copy of Astonish Me, in hardcover, from the publishers. I was not paid or compensated for my review, but given the book with the hope that I and my readers would love it and with thanks for the consideration.
So let me know if you loved it, Gentle Reader!