Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Book Review: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

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(This book was provided to me by NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for review purposes).

Description from Goodreads
From the author of the widely acclaimed debut novel Seating Arrangements, winner of the Dylan Thomas Prize: a gorgeously written, fiercely compelling glimpse into the passionate, political world of professional ballet and its magnetic hold over two generations.

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.

In graceful, inimitable prose, Shipstead draws us into an extraordinary world, and the lives of her vivid and tempestuous characters. Filled with intrigue, brilliant satire, and emotional nuance, Astonish Me is a superlative follow-up to Shipstead's superb debut.

My Review

This book started off a little confusing to me- I got about 4% in and realized I didn't know Joan from another woman in the novel, so I started over. (This was not the author's fault; upon re-reading, I realized I had applied to Joan what should have been applied to the other woman. Lesson learned to pay better attention to details!)

This book is broken up into 5 parts, and each part is broken up further into time frame. Each part also skips back to a time period either slightly before or slightly farther along than what the first part started as. So each part introduces you to more detail than you were previously given, which makes the first part of the book a little frustrating (Why did Arslan choose to defect with Joan? What happened between Elaine and Joan?), but ultimately, everything seems to be tied up just as tight as a ballet shoe.

Joan is a ballerina who's good enough to be in the corps, but not good enough to solo. She meets Arslan while he is becoming super famous in Russia but he wants to come to America. So, after much letter writing and secrecy, Joan helps Arslan defect. They have a sexual relationship, but not a real one. At least not the kind Joan wants.
Elaine is Joan's roommate on and off. She is an interesting character- she is a soloist, she does coke, she has a relationship with Mr. K, who is gay. I think of everyone, she ended up being my favorite character.

Then there is Jake, Joan's husband. He loved her in high school, they sleep together once, and ultimately Joan ends up pregnant and they get married. Jake starts off as this kind of pathetic guy, but as the story progresses, you come to respect his quiet strength for his family.
Jake and Joan's son's name is Harry. Joan quit ballet shortly after becoming pregnant with Harry. She still studies ballet (in her private time), and ultimately begins to teach ballet. Late in his childhood (but before becoming a teenager, Harry also becomes a ballet dancer. A very, very good one.

Jake and Joan move next door to Sandy and her husband, who have a daughter who is Harry's age, named Chloe. Harry develops a crush on Chloe, and although it isn't really stated specifically, I believe she is the reason he also decides to dance ballet. Chloe does not return Harry's feelings, though Harry is always there for her, especially in an extremely upsetting time.
To me, Harry's crush on Chloe almost mirrored the crush that Jake had on Joan throughout their teenage years. I thought that was an interesting way for the author to continue to show more about the relationships between the characters, in general.
Sandy is jealous of Joan- that much is obvious. They are friends but eventually are just parents who have kids that are friends.

I'm not sure if I was supposed to be surprised by the "revelation" of the book, but I wasn't. I figured it out pretty much right away. That doesn't take away from the book- I still enjoyed watching it all unfold.

If you're not a fan of books that skip around in time, or skip perspective, you will not like this book. I don't find it to be confusing- it's clearly stated when time is moved. It's just a matter of paying attention (kind of like I didn't when I started this book), and making sure you understand where you are in time when things start to get revealed.
To me, this was an interesting book with interesting characters, and I really enjoyed it. I have been interested in ballerina's since seeing Center Stage, and pretty much will read or watch anything with one. (Though I have never been to an actual ballet- strange!)

I debated with myself on which rating to give this book, and I decided to give it 3 stars. I want to rate it 3.5, but I didn't like it enough to bump up to four stars. Because, ultimately, I liked it, but I don't see myself re-reading it, and it will be a very specific kind of person I would recommend it to. So, 3 stars.

This book will be available to purchase on April 8, 2014. You can preorder a copy of this book in hardcover here, and for Kindle here.

FTC: I received a copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher for review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
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