Swanilda8

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

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Has anyone else read Shipstead's new novel about ballet dancers in the 1970s and 80s? The story centers around Joan, a corps dancer who helps a major Soviet ballet star defect, only to be deserted by him a few years later. It follows her and her old colleague, Elaine, as Joan retires from ballet for a different life. I'm only about a third of the way through thus far. The writing is lovely, and the descriptions of characters in Joan's later life are spot-on. However, the parts about the ballet company and Elaine's ongoing life as a performer are just so transparently taken from real NYCB stories (Mr. K = Mr. B, the company=NYCB, Arlsan Rusakov is taken largely from Baryshnikov, with a little Nureyev thrown in). Those sections almost seem like satire to me, but I'm not sure a general readership would read it that way. I'd be interested to hear what other balletAlert posters think about the book.

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I haven't yet read this, but every so often we get a novel or two that is a thinly disguised re-telling of contemporary ballet history. The last one I recall was a gloss on Alexander Godunov's life.

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The writing is lovely, and the descriptions of characters in Joan's later life are spot-on. However, the parts about the ballet company and Elaine's ongoing life as a performer are just so transparently taken from real NYCB stories (Mr. K = Mr. B, the company=NYCB, Arlsan Rusakov is taken largely from Baryshnikov, with a little Nureyev thrown in). Those sections almost seem like satire to me, but I'm not sure a general readership would read it that way.

Shipstead has said that she based the story loosely on the defection of Baryshnikov and his subsequent career in the West. It seems reasonable for a work of fiction that takes off from actual ballet events and is aimed at a general readership to refer to widely known stories or figures – the Soviet defectors, Nijinsky – and the title of the book is of course a nod to Diaghilev.

It’s nice to know that it’s well written. If so, that would make two good recent novels derived from real-life ballet events, along with Varley O’Connor’s “The Master’s Muse.”

Thank you for telling us your reactions to the book, Swanilda8. I was a bit dubious based on a couple of excerpts I'd seen, but I do intend to read it.

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Chiming in very late (oh, just twelve months!) to say I really enjoyed reading this novel, and would recommend it to other ballet-savvy people. I hated the end portion of the story, but sometimes I just choose to ignore the unsatisfying ending and still consider a book to be an excellent read. Shipstead did really good job for someone who doesn't know the ballet world. I didn't mind that it was thinly disguised NYCB. Adrienne Sharp is another dance writer whose fiction is so very close to real people and events, but she, too, is another exquisite dance fiction writer. (Although her prose is more dark in mood.)

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Better late than never, Terez. :) I have been meaning to get around to Astonish Me - it was generally well reviewed and I'm always curious about ballet-themed novels. I have not read Adrienne Sharp. Do you recommend any particular titles by her?

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I personally think Master's Muse was the better of the two books, but I still had some fun with this. Yes, clearly Baryshnikov and Balanchine from a mile away, though it does depart from reality quite enough so that it's not slavish.

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