I’ve been looking forward to Maggie Shipstead’s second novel since I read her debut, Seating Arrangements. That button-down satire of the Martha’s Vineyard set was the smartest romantic comedy of 2012. Shipstead can be fantastically witty about the anxieties and humiliations of middle age. Her take on a sniping corps of cutthroat ballerinas could be another bravura comedy.
So it takes a few measures to realize that her second novel performs a dramatic changement. The world of ballet, after all, is not particularly funny. Despite their mothers’ cooing, little girls in tutus learn early that their hips are too wide, their thighs too fat, their tolerance for pain too low. The genetically blessed ones must worship unrelenting precision. In pursuit of the perfect line, extension and turnout, they sacrifice their own bones. “You can’t be weak in the ballet,” Shipstead writes, “or it'll crush you.”
Something of a ballet’s structure is reflected in these pages. Though it spans three decades, Astonish Me is a strikingly svelte book, composed of short, intense scenes that move back and forth in time and around the world. Inspired by the defection of Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1974, Shipstead has created a similarly brilliant Russian dancer named Arslan Rusakov. Handsome, seductive and narcissistic, he begins to transform Western ballet almost as soon as he bolts from his Soviet handlers and earns asylum in the United States. His artistic perfection arrives gilded with political triumphalism.
For a dance novel to work, it’s got to dazzle us with great dance, and though Shipstead claims she has no aptitude at the barre, she can choreograph arresting scenes of Arslan at work: “His technique is not fusty but pure,” she writes. “His movements are quick but unhurried, impossible in their clarity and difficulty and extraordinary in how they seem to burst from nowhere.” She even lets us feel the audience impatient to applaud, with “their hands held apart like straining magnets.”
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But the novel’s real focus stands off in the wings: a young American woman named Joan. She’s doomed to be a good dancer, good enough to know she'll never be a great one. The first time she sees Arslan in Paris, “she realizes that the beauty radiating from him is what she has been chasing all along, what she has been trying to wring out of her own inadequate body.” She can’t help telling him, “ Tu m'etonnes” — You astonish me.
The novel opens after Joan’s romance with Arslan has boiled and fizzled away. Though she drove his getaway car, she’s since been replaced on his stage and in his bed by another defector, a prima ballerina so spectacular that Joan can’t even feel jealous. Now she might as well marry that nice young man from home and have a baby. She might as well start learning, in other words, to live the rest of her life in the gray light after waking from an impossibly vivid dream.
If that sounds like the program for a dreary performance, don’t worry. There may be little comedy in this novel, but Shipstead still has her flawless sense of timing and a sensitive ear for the muffled flutterings of hope and desire. Even when Joan moves to California with her husband and begins raising their son, the scenes still flex with tension. Theirs is not a bad marriage nor an ecstatic one, but one in which the partners are silently aware of their asymmetrical desires. Can Joan ever really be satisfied living with a mere mortal, chatting with pudgy moms over the fence? Can a woman, even one used to unnatural bends and poses, train herself to go through the motions of happiness in a wholly natural-looking way?
The fractured structure of this novel allows Shipstead a chance to do several disparate things, most of them well. From the excitement of Cold War political celebrities to the cruel athleticism of ballet, she moves confidently into the West Coast suburbs with their own species of prima donna and their own command performances. As the focus continues to shift, she’s also particularly astute about the way some children and teens experience artistic devotion that borders on erotic obsession.
Many of these highly polished scenes are intensely compelling; even the inevitable Nutcracker chapter is superb. But what, exactly, is gained by such frantic leaping across space and time? These narrative jumps sometimes feel erratic and random when they should feel purposeful and graceful. Some scenes seem stranded and underdeveloped, particularly near the very end when such concision robs the novel of the space it needs to keep grand revelations and family disruptions from sounding melodramatic.
But perhaps these complaints come too close to asking for a different sort of book. (Why can’t Swan Lake have more tap dancing?) The truth is, I relished this novel and was eager to chase it wherever it wanted to go, from Joan’s admission that she can’t be a great dancer to her nervous realization, years later, that her son just might be one. Shipstead has captured the mercurial flow of artistic genius, the way it sanctifies some lives even as it condemns others, all of them stretching toward that perfect beauty just out of reach.
Ron Charles reviewed this book for the Washington Post.