Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Astonish Me
by Maggie Shipstead
Release Date: April 8th, 2014
2014 Knoft
Ebook Edition; 272 Pages
ISBN: 978-0307962904
Genre: Fiction / Contemporary
Source: Review copy from publisher

3 / 5 Stars

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.

My Thoughts
Astonish Me is the story of Joan and Jacob, a married couple raising their child in comfort and peace. Joan however, is a former ballerina, more famous for the reason she helped Arslan Ruskov, a world-famous dancer, defect from the Soviet Union to the United States than for her dancing.  Jacob is a sweet academic who has wanted nothing more in his life than to settle down with Joan in blissful married life.  I was rather intrigued at the story about a ballerina whose dreams of personal stardom and fame never materialized, but whose hope now lies in her extremely talented son.  

I was drawn to this novel due to the world of professional ballet as I always want to learn more about it and am often intrigued at the nuances behind the scenes that we never see when the dancers are on the stage.  It is a very competitive and demanding world, and the dancers are often narcissistic and selfish, spending a lot of time perfecting their bodies and their skills.  I think, over time, this can definitely play on your mind and your emotions, especially as you get older and your body is no longer so pliant and resilient.  I can't imagine what it would be like to work every day of your life for something, to try and master something, and perhaps never achieve that success that you may crave.  For Joan, it led her to leave the theatre behind and seek out life and security in her best friend's arms. She was devastated when she left, and I think dancers, like athletes, probably go through a grieving process, which Joan did in the novel.  It left her feeling rootless and spiritless, especially as she knew that she would never be able to dance with her other love, Arslan, the man she helped defect, and to whom she was hopelessly attracted.

While I was quite intrigued by the ballet world, I always felt like I was missing something when it came to connecting to the characters however.   While every character develops quite nicely, and is intriguing in their own way, and has issues with which to dead which are quite plausible, I never truly felt connected to any of them and wasn't overly sympathetic to their plights and problems when they occurred.  When Joan's son Harry develops an interest in ballet, and then shows an enormous amount of talent and heads to New York to train in summer camps and then study full-time, things begin to get interesting again.  Suddenly, the two worlds begin to re-connect and I like how the author shows how talent can draw two people together but can also tear them apart so deeply they can never reconnect.  She shows how the ego can interfere with relationships and destroy everything that is dear to a person; the relationship between Chloe and Harry demonstrates that rather well.  

The novel does jump back and forth in time, and between characters as well, which I didn't find to be a problem, but some readers do not always like that tendency to jump in time.  I liked it because you don't always get the whole story at once, and it's nice to find out what another character is thinking about the same event sometimes.  I did find Joan to be a rather distant and unfriendly character, and I wish the story had a bit more humour in it, but it is what it is. Again, I did find something lacking in the storytelling, although I can't quite put my finger on it, but I certainly enjoyed the parts about the ballet.  

Astonish Me was a fairly predictable story about a ballerina who helps a Soviet ballet star defect and then falls for him rather hard.  He marries another ballerina who can match him in power and talent as Joan did not have the talent to do so, and Joan leaves heartbroken to marry her childhood sweetheart, Jacob.  I really enjoyed the parts about the ballet world itself, and adored Mr. K. as he was quite and interesting character.  The other characters were  somewhat developed but I found I couldn't connect with them on an emotional level for some reason.  I like the theme of the novel; a chance for redemption and a second chance, but I wish the novel had more depth to it and explored the characters' underlying emotions a bit more.  If you are not a fan of ballet, I'm not sure if this is the book for you.