Astonish Me, by Maggie Shipstead
Print Length: 369 pages
Publication Date: April 8, 2014
Amazon Book Description: Astonish Me is the irresistible story of Joan, a young American dancer who helps a Soviet ballet star, the great Arslan Rusakov, defect in 1975. A flash of fame and a passionate love affair follow, but Joan knows that, onstage and off, she is destined to remain in the background. She will never possess Arslan, and she will never be a prima ballerina. She will rise no higher than the corps, one dancer among many.
After her relationship with Arslan sours, Joan plots to make a new life for herself. She quits ballet, marries a good man, and settles in California with him and their son, Harry. But as the years pass, Joan comes to understand that ballet isn’t finished with her yet, for there is no mistaking that Harry is a prodigy. Through Harry, Joan is pulled back into a world she thought she’d left behind—back into dangerous secrets, and back, inevitably, to Arslan.
Reading Sara Review: This is one of those books that inspired me to write a blog. I read books fairly fast, flying through two to three books a week (when I have the time). It is hard to remember what some books were about a month or so later, and I struggled recommending books to friends. One of the reasons for creating a blog, in addition to my general passion for reading, was that through writing about the books that I am reading, perhaps I will remember them better.
What I mean to say is: this book is forgettable. But it was not bad. It was quick-paced, had some intrigue and surprises along the way and was certainly a unique story that I had not read before. But, it just wasn’t that interesting to me.
At the end of the book I wondered who the main character really was. Was it Joan, the ballerina who became pregnant and her entire life changed? Was it actually Jacob, who was the rock of the family and instilled values and love into Joan and Harry’s lives? Was it Harry himself, who changed the lives of all of the people around him? Maybe there was not just one character – but the point is that the people in our lives influence who we become as we grow and they are all main characters because we cannot be someone without the other pieces that they bring.
The book had some great nature vs. nurture themes that I enjoyed exploring. I think this book showed that who we become is strongly linked to the nurture that we receive. Harry’s values were strongly linked to Jacob, his father, but nature (genes) allowed him to become an incredible dancer. While Joan did not push Harry to become a dancer, he found it on his own and that inherent skill could not be stifled. Chloe, on the other hand, did not have the genes to become a dancer – but had a will and a desire, because of various struggles in her life primarily against her parents, that gave her an edge and an anger that made her an incredible dancer. Joan had some of the nature to become a dancer, but not a dancer at the top – no matter how hard she worked, and she needed the nurture and the comfort that she found through a marriage with Jacob.
I did not like that we, the readers, never got to know Arslan as his own character – I am sure that was intentional to keep the mystery of Joan’s past a mystery to the reader – but even so, I had a hard time with the ending because it focused on a character that I did not know or know that I was supposed to care so much about.
I know other people who loved this book, so maybe I missed something big and important or something deeper. The ballet part was interesting, but I never felt the stress of Chloe and Harry’s practice – was only told that they worked hard, but did not feel it or see it. I hoped to feel more for the characters and be more interested in their ending, but it did not get there for me. This does not mean it won’t for you!
Wine Recommendation: You do not need a drink to get through this, it was not a bad book by any means – but a glass of wine can certainly help anything be better. They do not spend too much time on drinking – so I am just going to pick a wine that I love and have been drinking a fair amount of recently: The Paring Red Wine.
Pictured here (with an enormous, special occasion wine glass) is the 2010 vintage. I have yet to have a bad one, and for the $25 price, it is an absolute steal. An incredible wine that I crave all four seasons and can make any meal a special occasion.