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.

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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.

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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?