In case you were wondering (you weren’t), my ballet obsession is alive and well.
I just finished reading the book Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. And it is everything I wanted this book to be. Well, ok, I wish it were slightly longer and that the final ballet were described in more detail. But, aside from those two points, it is everything I wanted it to be.
Joan is a fantastic character. For much of the novel, I am on her side and my heart breaks for her while she struggles to be the kind of dancer she dreams of being, but can never quite achieve, and falls in love with the unattainable, asshole of an egomaniac, Arslan Rusakov. But she is slowly revealed to be far more complex than I thought she would be. She is not a fragile ballerina tragically giving up a life of dance for the life of stay-at-home mom. She’s a bit of a snake, frankly. And though I was taken aback by some of her actions, I like her more for her sometimes astonishing behavior and manipulation.
I nearly always identify with the struggling artists in a novel. Though the book is filled with ballet dancers, both struggling and naturally brilliant, Elaine and, surprisingly, Chloe turned out to be my favorites. In both these women Shipstead captures the kind of inner torment it is to be an artist.
Never in her life, not once, has she danced the way she wishes to, but futility has become an accepted companion. The ideal that lives beyond the mirror makes teasing, flickering appearances but never quite shows itself, never solidifies into something that can be looked at and not just glimpsed. She might surprise it as she whips her head around, spotting during pirouettes, or catch it flitting through one hand or foot. But it never stays.
Joan’s story, ultimately, is more about love than about dance. In falling in love with Rusakov, she’s forced to realize the superior beauty of his dancing and the inadequacy of her own. And for her it’s better to quit dance than to torture herself trying.
I think if I had been allowed to toil in obscurity like I’d planned, everything would be better. I would admire Arslan from afar and idolize Ludmilla even though she’s a bitch, but now it all seems so disappointing. So drab. Now I have to think about how if I’d only happened to be more talented, my life would be a thousand times more exciting and i’d get to really dance with him, and he would take me more seriously. It’s like there’s an empty space in the world that was meant for me, but I can’t get inside. I can just bang on the outside.
Joan’s realization of her own limitations is sad, but her acceptance of those limitations is admirable. She understands her place in the world, her relation to the world and to history. (Although, some of her actions and motivations are really slimy.)
Most theaters have a red light in the back for the dancers to spot off of as they turn. She had been that light for Arslan as he considered defecting, a fixed point to look at, to steer by, unremarkable except in its use.
The relationships and the partnerings and the love configurations (because they are more than just triangles) are complicated and messy and disappointing and maddening and expertly crafted by Shipstead. Everyone in this book, at some point or other, is manipulative and used by someone or using someone for their own agenda. No one in this book is innocent (with, arguably, the exception of Jacob). The unfolding of these characters and their histories and entanglements are brilliantly paced. Shipstead gives you just enough to bate your interest and curiosity before propelling you forwards or backwards on the timeline of Joan’s life.
Shipstead captures the triumph and torture of love and art in Astonish Me without falling into cliches or becoming overly sentimental. She writes about the desire for perfection and the pain of inadequacy, and the impressions a person has from loving the artist from afar about dance as well as McCullers (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter) and Patchett (Bel Canto) write similarly about music. The women in this novel are fierce and unapologetic and refuse to be reduced to props in someone else’s production. The story is addictive and immensely satisfying. Definitely add Astonish Me to your own summer reading list.