Fiction astonish me

Published on June 29th, 2014


Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

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Blurb: Astonish Me is the irresistible story of Joan, a young American dancer who helps a Soviet ballet star, the great Arslan Rusakov, defect in 1975. A flash of fame and a passionate love affair follow, but Joan knows that, onstage and off, she is destined to remain in the shadows. After her relationship with Arslan sours, Joan decides to make a new life for herself. She quits ballet, marries a good man, and settles into the rhythm of Californian life with their son, Harry. But as the years pass, Joan comes to understand that ballet isn’t finished with her yet: for there is no mistaking that Harry is a prodigy. Inevitably Joan is soon pulled back into a world she thought she’d left behind and back to Arslan. (Blue Door, June 2014)

Frances Perraudin, The Observer

Astonish Me is a gripping, thoughtful and tightly-written novel, where ballet acts as an effective metaphor for all aspirations and disappointments.

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Catherine Taylor, The Guardian

“Not a ballet dancer herself, Shipstead nevertheless empathises with its cruel choreography: for every perfect plié, a torn ligament, for every ecstatic achievement, a brutal comedown. In many ways her subjects are engaged in a hopelessly masochistic version of Schnitzler’s La Ronde, both with their profession and with each other. The fragility and shifting dependency of relationships are scrupulously exposed”

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Isabel Berwick, The Financial Times

“The story is rooted in the extraordinary, closed world of ballet. Without ever tipping into Black Swan-style melodrama, Shipstead carries her readers through to the book’s climax with an appropriately relentless, quixotic energy; from the work’s quiet beginnings to a stunning, stagey ending.”

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Kate Saunders, The Times

“Brilliantly written; the first ever ballet novel for grown-ups.”

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Ron Charles, The Washington Post

Many of these highly polished scenes are intensely compelling; even the inevitable “Nutcracker” chapter is superb. But what, exactly, is gained by such frantic leaping across space and time? These narrative jumps sometimes feel erratic and random when they should feel purposeful and graceful. And a few chapters risk looking too thin, like some aggressively dieting dancer who loses all her body fat and then begins shedding muscle. Why can’t we have more connective tissue between these brief scenes? Some of them seem stranded and underdeveloped, particularly near the very end when such concision robs the novel of the space it needs to keep grand revelations and family disruptions from sounding melodramatic. But perhaps these complaints come too close to asking for a different kind of book. (Why can’t “Swan Lake” have more tap dancing?)

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Harry Ritchie, The Daily Mail

“As well as its basic improbability, this is a novel that — actually, quite rightly — refuses to explain all the balletic jargon, which will be lost on readers who, like me, couldn’t tell a pirouette from a  pork pie. However, it is very well-written,  and cleverly constructed with some elegant pirouettes of its own in the story’s twists and turns. And it kept this balletophobe gripped.”

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