Summer Book Club Week 5: Astonish Me

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

astonish-meAccording to the jacket flap, Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me is about “the nature of talent, the choices we must make in search of fulfillment, and how we square the yearning for comfort with the demands of art.”  To me, though, this is a novel about unrequited love.  It is not about one particular unrequited love story, but many: about the myriad shades of unrequited love, and the way it shapes all of us and makes us do both foolish and tremendous things.

I loved this book.  LOVED IT.

Like a lot of little girls, I was obsessed with ballet.  I took classes, and dreamed about going to the National Ballet School, but mostly, I read books about ballet.  I loved Veronica Tennant’s On Stage, Please, about a girl’s first years in the dance world, and must have read it ten times. When I was a teenager, I compulsively read and reread a pulp novel called Ballerina.  This story of two friends following their ballet dreams is a big pile of garbage, but I wanted to live in its pulsing, backbiting, sexy world all the time. (I didn’t imagine I’d be able to confirm the title, or even the existence, of this book, all these years later – it seems like something that should have vanished long ago into the mists of trashy book history – but check out this wonderful review by someone who was similarly bewitched by it.)

Astonish Me has all the intensity and glamour of those books, but it is masterfully crafted literary novel for grownups.  In 1975, Joan, a member of the corps in a New York ballet company, helps a gifted premier danseur defect from the Soviet Union.  She loves him, but it’s clearly never going to work.  Things unfold from there: Joan’s roommate, Elaine, loves the gay artistic director of the company; Joan’s high school best friend loves Joan and eventually marries her; their son Harry loves their next-door neighbour’s daughter Chloe;  everyone knows how everyone else feels and just muddles along, taking what they need when it is offered, and offering what they can in return.

This central theme – that relationships are never balanced, that devotion is never equal, but that we can connect with each other anyway – unfolds through beautiful, convincing dialogue and a series of quiet yet disquieting events.  The characters are intelligent and self-aware – they know themselves, but in a way that seems entirely real and not precocious.  The teenaged Harry, for example, sitting next to Chloe in a dark theatre watching a musical, “imagines how one day he will be the best dancer and Chloe will want to dance only with him.”  How many of us, watching someone do something astonishing on a stage or a racetrack or a screen, have imagined ourselves into the body of the star we are observing, and have imagined the love we would inspire in someone we can’t seem to reach in any other way?  The title of the book calls out to this yearning.  “Astonish me,” we imagine the other is thinking.  “All you have to do is astonish me, and then I will love you.”

I wanted this book never to end.  I can’t wait to get my hands on Shipstead’s earlier novel, Seating Arrangements.  If you have ever been in love with ballet, or the idea of ballet, or any other art, or a person who didn’t love you back, or the idea of a person who was really someone else entirely, I hope you’ll read this book.


Also read this week: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. This is a spooky little romp; I read it in an afternoon.  The choppy semi-stream-of-consciousness style is not really my thing, but it’s a good story and I was T-boned by the ending.

Abandoned this week: Joyce Carol Oates’ Carthage.  I try again and again to read Oates, and I just can’t do it.  Her short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is one of my favourites of all time, but I have found that I can tolerate about a short-story’s worth of each her novels before I’m overcome with despair and have to go watch a sitcom to pull myself together.


Have you read Astonish Me, or either of the other two books I attempted this week? If so, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading?


9 thoughts on “Summer Book Club Week 5: Astonish Me

  1. Think I need to add this one to my TBR list. Thanks for sharing.
    I finished two YA books this week. Endangered about bonobos and a civil war in Congo (at the behest of the teacher I worked with for 7 years since she will be teaching this book in September and loves getting my input – how flattering!) I think it could have ended in a different way, and I wasn’t completely convinced the characterization and plot worked, but I imagine middle school students will be fine with it.
    The other was Lichgate, first in a YA fantasy series. I liked the character but this was more of a series set-up book than a complete story with a problem resolved. I might read more of the series – once I get through the two dozen or more books already waiting to be read.


    1. Sharon: so many books, so little summer…I actually find myself looking askance at my bursting library bag these days thinking, “Got to do some weeding in there before school starts.”


  2. I haven’t read Astonish Me either but I think you’ve got me convinced with your review here. I love ballet. I wasn’t the best at it but took it for 7 years as a child and loved the mystique around the dancing world.

    I didn’t post last week. Still reading Life After Life by Kate Atkinson almost nearly done. My kids have kept me very busy these past two weeks. I wrote here about our newest most favorite app that has me inspired both as a parent and a teacher.


  3. I just wrote about Astonish Me also – I think it’s the best book I’ve read this year. I loved it, and I know little to nothing about ballet. The characters were so intriguing! I liked Maggie Shipstead’s earlier novel too, but I thought this was better – more developed, maybe?
    I read We Were Liars too. I liked it. I didn’t love it. I was surprised by the ending and didn’t see it coming.


  4. I finished “All the Light We Cannot See” yesterday and I can’t stop thinking about it. I read it in a few days; the joys of summer vacation! Sometimes books set in the war intimidate me; I am not convinced I want to go there, even in my imagination, but this novel draws the reader into the double story line so skillfully that you are not “in the war,” but with the character you are reading about. We follow Marie-Laure, blind daughter of a Paris museum locksmith, and Werner, German orphan. Both protagonists share a passion for knowledge, and the reader accompanies them on their quest to understand their world. One of the things that I liked best about this novel is the seamless interweaving of the two stories and the organic time shifts between past and present. I don’t know how authors decide what order to put things in, but this order is perfect, you never have that frustrated feeling that you want to keep going with the other story line, instead you look forward to the new part of the plot and how it will help you understand the big picture. Two other World War books that come to mind as similar in their depiction of these huge events from individual perspectives are “Atonement” by Ian McEwen and especially “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

    Siobhan Curious, I like the way you are able to put your mental finger on the underlying imports of the novel, the unbalanced devotion and “astonish me.” I need to think more before I wrap my head around “All the Light We Cannot See,” but there is definitely something about family and community, however unconventional or difficult it is, and our yearning for those connections once we move away from them. There is also something about choices and “living your life before it ends.”


  5. So…not only am I VERY late to the Astonish Me book discussion party, I also now need to summon the courage to disagree with so many of you, and say…I did not like this book!

    As a 7th grade middle school English teacher, I always told my students: You don’t have to love/like the book, but you must be able to tell me why.

    Here’s MY why: I did not find the characters fully developed or engaging in any way. I don’t need to LIKE a character–indeed there are many in literature that I passionately hated. That’s the key word: passionately. I just wasn’t intrigued by/didn’t care enough about the characters.

    Before picking up the book, I was already intrigued by dance, knew most of the ballet terms, and had lived through the era of Russian dancers defecting. By all accounts, I should have enjoyed reading Astonish Me. But I did not.

    I feel that this story has already been told (and to me, more engagingly and more effectively) before in the film The Turning Point (1977) with Anne Bancroft, Shirley MacLaine and Mikhail Baryshnikov: Two ballerinas’ lives diverge—one stays on to become the company’s prima ballerina; the other leaves the company after becoming pregnant, and goes on to become a small town dance teacher. Her daughter dances beautifully enough to be asked to join the company. The Russian defector is a brilliant dancer and consummate ladies’ man.

    Does this all sound a bit familiar?

    Sadly—Astonish Me did not astonish me.


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