When I was growing up in New York City in the 1970s the cult of ballet was at its height. The New York City ballet led by George Balanchine was front and center along with the American Ballet Theater. I adored and idolized the stars: Gelsey Kirkland, Suzanne Farrell, Natalia Makarova and most especially, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Members of the various companies inhabited the then reasonably priced Upper West Side and I would ogle their gazelle like bodies and turned out feet with the burning envy of someone who had neither the single minded discipline nor the physical characteristics necessary to join their ranks.
Time and distance has demystified the ballet scene, revealing it as capable of psychological and physical destruction undertaken in the guise of creating beauty. Perfection has a price and often a steep one – addiction, injury, eat disorders and more – not to mention spending decades living and working in an insular world competing against your body’s inevitable decline. Backstage politics and cattiness seem less appealing to me in my fifties than in my teenage years. Then I believed that adult life perpetuated the intensity and terror of high school and professional ballet seemed like a logical extension of everything I knew. Even then some part of me understood that the muck that lay beneath the glamour was deep and merciless, but even so, if I had been blessed with the right kind of body and the talent, I would have fought hard to become a part of the glittering illusion.
'Astonish Me' transported me back three decades to that era of superstar dancers, when the latest Soviet defectors became cult figures, and when ‘Mr. B’ ruled the roost at City Ballet as a god anointing the chosen. Much of the fun of ‘Astonish Me’ comes from the palpable voyeurism that comes from the roman a clef characters based on Balanchine (rechristened Mr. K. in the book) and Baryshnikov (Arslan Rusakov), feel true to life while other characters are sensible composites that mine the real life travails of real world ballerinas Kirkland, Makarova, and Lisa Rinehart.
As perfect as they are, these thinly veiled portraits are not at the center of Shipstead's novel. Instead Shipstead centers her novel on Joan Joyce, a young corps de ballet dancer who plays a central role in aiding Rusakov’s defection and is his lover during his early days in New York. Joan, like all professional ballet dancers, has spent her life pursuing transcendence and the limelight, but very early on realizes that she lacks that ineffable something that translates into stardom. It is simply a matter of time before her life, the only life she has ever wanted, will come to an abrupt end. When her involvement with Arslan ends, Joan takes charge of her own destiny and marries Jacob, the young man who has loved her since they met in High School.
After moving to Southern California she and Jacob raise their son, Harry, who follows in Joan’s footsteps along with Chloe, the daughter of their neighbors. As the next generation matures there is a predictable, though entertaining, collision with the past that unravels and destabilizes the present.
The plot is pure soap opera stuff, and the essential twist will be no secret to anyone who reads between the lines of the jacket copy. Shipstead's writing is precise, but never showy and despite the multiple shifts between timeframes and narrative perspective, always easy to follow. It is this ease that is the books greatest strength and its greatest weakness. In her debut, ‘Seating Arrangements’, Shipstead demonstrated that she has the capacity to become a brilliant satirist and comic novelist. There are a few moments of shining and pointed wit here, as in her description of the clothing choices of Chloe’s father Gary Wheelock early on, but for the most part Shipstead sheathes her verbal knives and delivers the tale in straightforward fashion without the trenchant observation of mores that I so loved in 'Seating Arrangements'. Although I was disappointed that Shipstead kept her brilliance as a social satirist largely under wraps through much of ‘Astonish Me’, the book is, like its predecessor, a well-crafted and satisfying read. Many a beach blanket this summer will be home to ‘Astonish Me’, but I have my fingers crossed that in her next novel Shipstead ups her game with more inventive plotting and uses intelligent wit to become a writer whose work equals the achievements of the greatest of the dancers in ‘Astonish Me’.
Recommended to anyone who loves ballet, readers looking a family saga with an unusual background and a love story based on mature connection instead of the frisson of falling in love.
Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher in return for an honest review, which is what this is.