Thursday, June 10, 2021

Book 288: Astonish Me


"The motions. She has been trained to believe that the motions are enough. Each motion is to be perfected, repeated endlessly and without variation, strung in a sequence with other motions like words in a sentence, numbers in a code."

Dates read: January 10-14, 2019

Rating: 8/10

If it's possible to fail out of ballet, I did as a child. First of all, I've been pigeon-toed my whole life, so a proper turnout was something beyond my capabilities. But mostly, I am just completely without grace. Despite my 5'2" frame, my dad nicknamed me "Gabezilla" at one point because I walk so heavily that I sound vaguely dinosaurian. My sister, on the other hand, had talent for lithe and lovely movements and did ballet until she graduated high school. I was always jealous, both of her elegance of movement and toe shoes.

Despite my own lack of capabilities, I've always enjoyed books and movies about ballet. Maggie Shipstead's Astonish Me centers around the story of Joan, a young dancer in the corps of a New York company in the 80s when we first meet her. After a steamy romance with a Russian defector, Arslan, left her heartbroken, she reconnected with Jacob, the boy who worshipped her in high school. Now she's pregnant, ready to leave dance and move on. Joan and Jacob marry and move to California with their son, Harry, where he works in educational research and she tries to fit in with the other stay-at-home-mommies, but eventually opens a dance studio.

The story moves back and forth in time to reveal Joan and Jacob's high school friendship, her move to Paris with a ballet company in her early 20s, her role in Arslan's defection, her friend Elaine and her entanglement with the company's artistic director, and then later, after ballet, Joan's brief but unhappy friendship with a neighborhood couple with a daughter the same age as her son, the tension in Joan's marriage, where both parties are aware that she "settled" for him but it remains to be seen how happy that settlement was. Joan's role as a ballet teacher, her ambivalence about her son's interest in and obvious talent for dance, and Harry's own eventual growth into a man round out the narrative.

This book was an excellent example of why I always give an author two chances. Even if I really don't care for one book, if another one by the same author catches my eye, I'll give it a shot: not every book is for every person, after all, and sometimes a book just doesn't work for a reader because of reasons outside the quality of the work. I did not enjoy Maggie Shipstead's previous novel, Seating Arrangements, which mocked the well-off and grasping of Martha's Vineyard through dramatics over a wedding. But this one was wonderful! I found myself enraptured in Shipstead's tale, in the characters, in the various ways she looked at the relationships of artisans to their art. I'm not always big into non-linear narratives when it feels artificial, but the use of both this device and multiple perspectives really worked for the story she was telling.

The bits of this that didn't come together for me mostly happened near the end and while they kept the book from great rather than just good, they didn't derail the whole thing. I was too invested in the characters: Elaine, Jacon, Harry, his friend Chloe, and especially Joan. Joan was sometimes infuriating, sometimes enviable, sometimes mysterious, but always interesting. Her quest for fulfillment and happiness really resonated with me. If you're generally into books in which ballet/dance features prominently, you'll find a lot to like here. But even if what you're looking for is more along the lines of character-driven family drama, this is very satisfying. Highly recommended!

One year ago, I was reading: A Dirty Job

Two years ago, I was reading: The Coming Plague

Three years ago, I was reading: The Girl With All The Gifts

Four years ago, I was reading: The Man Without A Face

Five years ago, I was reading: The Name Of The Rose

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