Enter the world of professional ballet in Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me. In 1975, a young dancer named Joan is completely taken with the celebrated Russian dancer Arslan Rusakov, so much so that when Arslan contacts Joan to help him defect from his native country, Joan is happy to oblige. Although Joan longs to eventually dance with Arslan, she quickly realizes she is not in his league and will spend her career regulated to the corps de ballet in an American company. Joan finally decides to leave the company to settle down with Jacob, a scholarly boy who has adored her since high school and together they raise their son Harry. Joan eventually teaches dance in California, and soon garners the attention of a young dancer named Chloe, who will become her protégé. Harry also acquires an interest in dance, and Joan and Jacob realize that they have turned Harry into the next great dancer. This will have lasting effects on the future of their family.
Shipstead is gifted at creating compelling characters who will suffer longing and loss throughout the course of the novel. The situations are realistic and detailed, and the reader will get to know the lives of Jacob, Joan and Harry intimately throughout the course of the novel. There is enough information about professional ballet to keep the reader interested, but it is not overwhelming, and a novice to the world of dance will still be entertained. Shipstead won the L.A. Times Book Prize for First Fiction and the Dylan Thomas Prize for her debut novel Seating Arrangements. The audio version of the title is read by actress Rebecca Lowman who gives life to the characters with a delightful reading. Astonish Me will appeal to Shipstead’s current fans as well as attract new readers who are looking for an interesting character-driven novel.