Pick of the Week: Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead
Astonish Me is both a fascinating journey into the world of professional ballet and a tender family story. Joan Joyce is a ballerina in the late 1970’s with a famous company in New York City. Reeling from an unsuccessful affair with a Russian ballet star whom she helped defect, she turns to Jacob, an old high school friend who has always been in love with her. Joan uses Jacob as her ticket out of the world of ballet, where she feels inadequate and insecure. They have a child and settle into suburban life in California, and while the small family has a seemingly perfect life, Joan has to face the powerful emotional repercussions of her decision to leave ballet. As it becomes clear that her son, Harry, is also a gifted dancer, and will himself become a professional, long-held secrets are revealed that can tear her family apart.
Shipstead employs a unique writing style, moving back and forth in time to fill in aspects of the story, and also moving between narrators to fill in varying points of view. She creates uncanny parallels between Joan’s story and Harry’s, reminding us of that universal pattern in which children unconsciously follow their parents. It’s a bittersweet book, aching with Joan’s regret and sorrow, but it’s hopeful too. Shipstead demonstrates how love can grow and flourish, even when it’s not necessarily planted in fertile ground.