Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Book Review: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

From Goodreads:
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.
This is an amazing example of a character-driven novel that is completely enthralling.  We follow the main characters over the course of approximately 25 years, getting small glimpses of their lives at various points.  What could have wound up feeling very disjointed and disorienting is done skillfully and in a way that allows the reader to be fully present at each moment, even as the action jumps forward and backward in time.  I also found the characters and their emotions to be both sympathetic and believable, particularly Joan.  I love it when an author is able to create a character who makes poor, even unlikable or distasteful choices, but still presents as human and sympathetic.  I don't always like what Joan does, but I understand why she does it and I hurt for her as she's doing it.

Entertainment Value
I was utterly captivated by the characters.  I sometimes struggle with getting into character-driven books, but this one was just fascinating.  I loved the dance world Shipstead creates, even though I have absolutely no experience in it other than my obsessive watching of dance documentaries.  I was also captivated by the romance between Jacob and Joan and the way it changes over the years.

I think this is a must read for fans of competitive/professional ballet, for those who enjoy family dramas with a more literary bent, and those who enjoy character-driven fiction dealing with relationships.  I can't say enough good things about it and how much I enjoyed reading it.  You'll see it on my best of list at the end of the year for sure.

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