Astonish Me, by Maggie Shipstead, Blue Door, RRP£14.99/Knopf, RRP$25.95, 368 pages
The young American novelist Maggie Shipstead won the 2012 Dylan Thomas prize and the LA Times Prize for First Fiction for her debut Seating Arrangements, a tale of domestic dysfunction centring around a Waspy wedding. Her second novel, Astonish Me, is a lot more ambitious: family saga it may be but it is also a thought-provoking study of perfection, obsession and the impossibility of leaving our pasts behind.
The story is rooted in the extraordinary, closed world of ballet. Without ever tipping into Black Swan-style melodrama, Shipstead carries her readers through to the book’s climax with an appropriately relentless, quixotic energy; from the work’s quiet beginnings to a stunning, stagey ending.
The story opens in New York, 1977, where corps de ballet member Joan Joyce is disillusioned. Her relationship with Arslan Rusakov, charismatic, world-famous Russian star, has ended, and she feels “taunted and robbed, deprived” as she watches him dance with his fiancée Ludmilla Yedemskaya, a fellow Russian star now living in New York.
Joan, it turns out, played a key role in bringing Arslan to the west – she drove the getaway car as he sped away from his Russian minders while on tour in Canada. It’s the single most exciting, defining, seemingly out-of-character thing about her. Why did Arslan, a man with powerful friends and admirers in the west, choose Joan to help him? Shipstead, who is shaping up as a master storyteller, returns to the defection several times in the book, each time giving us some thrilling detail to add to the backstory.
Joan is also pregnant, having swiftly entered into a relationship with solid, clever Jacob Bintz – who has adored her since high school. New York itself is hot, febrile. “Civilization seems fragile. When the lights went out for a night in July, thousands of people looted and marauded and set fires.”
From this fulcrum of crisis, Shipstead introduces multiple timelines, reaching back into Joan’s unremarkable childhood to discover why she made herself into a dancer. “Her mother was single and worked and didn’t understand ballet or Joan.” She continues this self-imposed discipline (including eating almost nothing) when she leaves behind New York and the ballet to marry Jacob and move to a California suburb.
Joan finds it hard to connect with Jacob, and when he accuses her of just “going through the motions”, it rings true. “She [had] been trained to believe that the motions are enough. Each motion is to be perfected, repeated endlessly and without variation.” Years later, she occupies herself with running her small ballet school and watching with ambivalence as her son Harry finds his own talent for dance. Joan made herself into a dancer, forcing herself into the role with extraordinary willpower and application. Harry, on the other hand, has innate genius. Shipstead shifts the focus on to the younger generation of dancers – Harry and his friend Chloe, childhood friends and teenage lovers, their close but ultimately fractured relationship mirroring that of Joan and Jacob.
As the book’s climax approaches, Harry is picked for professional training in New York and comes to be noticed by Arslan – still dancing, still great. This collision of Joan’s past and present, her carefully separated worlds, is dramatic and carefully choreographed.
Shipstead has said in an interview that she chose the world of ballet for her setting as it “is very outside my experience: it’s so physical, so collaborative, so dynamic”. That also sums up just how it feels to read the results of her work.