Review: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements was one of my favorite debut novels of 2012. Taking place over just three days, it was the tale of an upper middle class family preparing for their (heavily pregnant) daughter’s wedding weekend on an island off of Connecticut. I spotted shades of Jonathan Franzen (the wry look at family dysfunction), of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, and of Zadie Smith (the subtle class considerations bring to mind her On Beauty). It was also very funny. Family quirks and ridiculous situations (such as an exploding whale carcass and a scene in which the family patriarch ends up hanging from the weather vane on his nemesis’s house) shared space with regret and genuine pathos. Shipstead’s percipient wisdom on emotions, sex, and family heritage seemed well beyond her years, convincing me that she was right up there with the best contemporary realist novelists working in America.
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
I was excited to see what she would come out with next, and jumped at the chance to read her new novel, Astonish Me, a few months before the official publication date of April 8th. It was rather a surprise to find that this one takes place in the high-stress world of professional ballet. I liked Black Swan about as much as the next person, but have no particular interest in dancing or competitive sports. Luckily, you don’t have to have any knowledge of or enthusiasm for ballet to enjoy Shipstead’s impressive psychological study of talent, betrayal, and parenthood over three decades.
The novel opens in New York City in 1977, with Joan Joyce resigning herself to the end of her ballet career. Her mercurial lover, Arslan Rusakov, whom she helped defect from the Soviet Union to America during the height of the Cold War, is about to marry someone else, and a pregnant dancer can only blend into the background for so long. Luckily she has her affable college boyfriend, Jacob Bintz, to fall back on. Things get strange, though, when Joan and Jacob’s son Harry also develops an obsession with ballet – especially the work of Arslan Rusakov himself.
Meanwhile, the lives of the Bintz family have become entwined with those of their southern California neighbors, Gary and Sandy Wheelock and their daughter Chloe. Gary and Sandy desperately want Chloe to be a high achiever, and with Jacob a gifted and talented program coordinator and Joan a sought-after ballet instructor, they think their daughter is in the right place to have her skills noticed. Both Harry and Chloe grow up bearing the weight of their parents’ expectations, struggling to enhance their innate talent through luck and hard work. A mutual love for ballet initially brings them together, but also threatens to drive them apart in the end. Shipstead’s every character is well-drawn, with a backstory and a plausible psychology. (I had a special fondness for Mr. K, a bisexual Russian ballet director dying of AIDS.)
Shipstead moves deftly back and forth within her 30-year time span, between Joan’s early years as a dancer and tumultuous relationship with Arslan, and Harry’s budding career a quarter century later. She also shifts effortlessly between her characters’ perspectives (using the close third person) and between New York City, Paris, Russia, and southern California, all along questioning the ways in which history repeats itself. Especially in the cutthroat world of ballet, time is a limited commodity and talented dancers are cruelly cast aside even in the prime of life. They are only nearing age 30 when Joan’s best friend Elaine muses, “one day you realize you’re not getting better, only older.”
Making the most of a second choice, or a second chance, is a theme that resonates with The Art of Fielding, another novel about professional sports and the disappointment of failure. And, like with baseball in Chad Harbach’s novel, ballet is just the backdrop for a sophisticated study of modern life. As Harry notes in the last few pages, “dance is about age and also the contrast between the limitations of the body and the way love makes you…free.”
I was somewhat disappointed to find humor (one of the key strengths of Seating Arrangements) mostly lacking here, and I wish I could have taken a more personal interest in the ballet material, but I would still make a case for Shipstead being one of the brightest rising talents in America. And since she’s just 30 years old now, she will only get better.
Étonnez-moi, Diaghilev said to his Ballets Russes dancers: Astonish me. That search for the sublime amid the ordinariness of life – the desire to find art within the heartbreak – is one of Shipstead’s most enduring messages. I’m sure she’ll keep astonishing me with her wise and intricate novels for many years to come.