First off, a confession. I'm one of the "moms looking for exercise and some trace of girlhood dreams … ungainly in their leotards, wearing slippers, not pointe shoes, and not turned out" that Maggie Shipstead skewers so casually in her latest novel Astonish Me [Amazon.com] The title is taken from a Serge Diaghilev anecdote – the founder of Ballet Russes reportedly told Jean Cocteau "Etonnez-moi" when the French poet expressed an interest in collaborating – but while the narrative references technical dance terms and uses the life of a New York ballet company as a backdrop, this is not just a novel for dance enthusiasts – or even wannabes. The author proves herself far more interested in the tensions that exist in life far from the public stage in the dark extremes of obsession and self-abnegation.
Everyone in Shipstead’s impressive novel seems to be hung up on something or someone. For the narrator Joan, it is her first love, the Soviet Ballet star Arslan Rusakov whom she has helped to defect. They meet in Paris where she is bewitched by the beauty of his dancing – “the beauty she has been chasing all along”; she navigates the allegory of the Palais Garnier’s unlit “convoluted innards” to find his dressing room and throws herself at the physical manifestation of her longing for perfection. Joan keeps a scrapbook to record their headline-making affair even as it inevitably disintegrates, paralysing her with misery.
Dumped by her Russian lover and insufficiently talented to leave the corps, Joan becomes pregnant as an exit strategy, and for most of the novel lives with her husband Jacob in California. They get a bigger house with a bigger pool, Jacob becomes a head teacher and Joan finally falls in love with him. “Like arranged marriages that turn out to be love marriages. Except it was always a love marriage for him,” as her best friend Elaine observes rather acidly.
Later Joan’s son Harry, a social misfit turned dance protégé, will join his mother poring over videos of his dance idol Rusakov, and the likeable Jacob will sneak into the garage of their home to flick through the fading record of his wife’s former love. Jacob has loved Joan since he was 13 but without much fanfare or applause. “Sometimes it seems like I am the only dad in town who has to feel inadequate because he is not a famous ballet dancer,” he tells his wife.
Even Sandy Wheelock, their overweight next-door neighbour whose daughter is a budding ballet star under Joan’s rigorous instruction, envies her not-quite-friend’s slimness: “Joan’s controlled exterior makes her seem like she’s hiding something.” It’s her husband Gary who provides the novel’s darkest note when he loses his job and drifts into solitary despair.
Elaine, Joan’s constant friend and a career success story, is both the reader’s window onto the world of ballet as her talents raise her ever higher, and also the character in the most twisted relationship. Hers is an almost chaste lifelong affair with the company’s homosexual choreographer Mr K. “When he made the first dance on her, he rearranged the cells of her body according to his own specifications, rewired her nerves, possessed her. Her civilian boyfriends could not understand her that way.”
The narrative jumps unobtrusively back and forth in time and place from the world of dance in the form of Joan’s past and Elaine’s present, following Harry as he grows into a dancer and develops an unrequited teen crush of his own, but perhaps finds its best expression in the story of Joan and Jacob’s relationship in far more humdrum surrounds.
Shipstead’s depiction of a marriage as it moves from first flush to middle age and into crisis, is both compelling and utterly convincing in a way that the plot lines featuring the almost comically petulant Rusakov fail to be. Joan the misfit in that civilian world, Jacob’s inability to quell his own paranoid imaginings about his wife’s loyalties, their joint fears for Harry and the gradual slide into familiarity are all brilliantly, almost casually realised in Shipstead’s well-toned prose.
Clare Dight is the editor of The Review.