Sunday, June 8, 2014

"Astonish Me," by Maggie Shipstead

In college and afterward, when I started attending dance performances – ballet and other – I fell in love with this great art. Over the years, I have been fortunate to see some of the great ballet and modern dance companies of the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. I have also gone to Indian dance concerts (which have resonated with me because of my childhood in India), and sometimes to the annual Ethnic Dance Festival here in San Francisco, which consists of performances by a wide variety of dance groups, mostly local but with origins in various countries around the world: Indonesia, Mexico, Scotland, the Philippines, China, Ireland, various countries in Africa, and many more. Then when my daughter started taking ballet lessons, she took to it and was good at it, and that was a big part of her life for many years. All of this is a preface to saying I enjoy seeing dance and, by extension, reading about it. A new novel by Maggie Shipstead, “Astonish Me” (Knopf, 2014), tells the story of a dancer called Joan and the Russian male dance star whom Joan helped to defect, Arslan. It is also, later, the story of Joan’s son Harry, who also becomes a star ballet dancer. The story is fiction, but there are elements that seem drawn from reality. The company seems to be based on the New York City Ballet, and the director/choreographer seems to be based on the great Balanchine. The defecting Russian dancer is clearly a version of Mikhail Baryshnikov. All of these are loose fictional portrayals, of course, but the bones of the similarities are there. The novel moves back and forth among several time periods, over a period of about three decades, and also moves among geographical locations, mostly New York but also Europe, California, and elsewhere. The portrayal of the world of ballet is powerful, moving, attractive, and sad in turns. The novel is compact, but much happens. The central events have to do with Joan’s love of dance, her being a good dancer but realizing she will never be a great dancer, her love of and affair with Arslan, his rejection of her for a more gifted ballerina who is also from Russia, her marriage to a good man completely outside of the dance world, their move to California, their gradual realization that their son Harry is becoming an immensely talented dancer, and the consequences as past meets present, including a surprise revelation near the end of the novel. This novel is fascinating as a portrayal of the dance world, as a story about choices in life, and as a reminder of the ways that life can surprise us. "Astonish Me" is psychologically intriguing and definitely keeps the reader’s interest throughout.
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