Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

There are a few simple truths, universally acknowledged, that exist to hamper (perceived) perfection. I’m not about to impart anything more than a few simple clichés, but please, read on. If you straighten you hair, it will rain. If you want to wear glasses, you’ll have prefect eyesight. If you’re trying to impress a cute boy (or girl), you’ll do something embarrassing. If you decide you want to be a ballerina, you’ll either be too short or tall.

Most importantly, have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it. Or so says Salvador Dali. Clearly a wise, level-headed man, no? This is a lesson Joan Joyce learns the hard way. Or maybe the easy way, depending on your perspective…

I’ll admit I tried, perhaps not as hard as I should have, to come up with something to say other than Maggie Shipstead astonishes me. I failed (sorry, this girl just wants to have puns). Nevertheless, it’s true. Maggie’s debut novel Seating Arrangements was one of my favorite books of 2012. I’ve been looking forward to Astonish Me, her second novel, and I’m happy to say it is a worthy successor.

Astonish Me

Joan is our anti-heroine. She is a good ballet dancer, but she’ll never be great. Due to a combination of skill, desire, and genetics, she’ll never move beyond the corps (the background dancers for those – like me – not in the know). After ending a turbulent affair with a Russian dancer, whom she helps defect, she goes to Chicago to seduce her best friend. She winds up pregnant, leaves ballet, and they marry. The following years, as the novel moves through the ‘70s,’80s, and ‘90s and back again, focuses on Joan’s dolorous state of mind, her son Harry’s burgeoning obsession with ballet, and her tense marriage to Jacob. Woven in is her complicated friendship with neighbors Sandy, Gary, and their daughter Chloe.

Where Shipstead is most successful is in capturing the detail and nuance of complicated family dynamics – what’s said and, often more importantly, what’s not. As she tells the story of Joan, Jacob, Harry, and Chloe, we learn the price of perfection and failure and, frankly, that the lessons we learn while attempting to achieve perfection are far more interesting than actually being perfect. The novel can be convoluted as it moves back and forth between various characters and time periods  – choreographed, if you will – and although this set-up doesn’t always work, it’s a compelling read. My favorite part? The sliver of hope at the end of the novel… 3.5/5.

Did anyone else want to be a ballerina when they were little? Or maybe you’ve learned a epigrammatic life lesson on the impossibility of perfection? I never specifically took ballet, but I did have to take it as part of my training for gymnastics. Shipstead fully admits to not having any talent for ballet, beyond that of a five year old, but being fascinating by that world nonetheless.

Chocolate Cake
Sandy, who is jealous of Joan, constantly tries to fatten her up – starting with a Double Fudge Cake (recipe via

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