- - Friday, May 9, 2014


By Maggie Shipstead
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95, 272 pages

Joan Joyce, the protagonist of “Astonish Me,” loves ballet, and she is good at it: good enough to be in the corps de ballet of a prestigious New York company, but not good enough to be a soloist. Her fame as a dancer will rest on her role in helping Arslan Ruskov defect from the Soviet Union.

They met when they were both dancing in Paris in the early 1970s, had a brief liaison, then he wrote her a string of letters asking her to help him flee — and so it happened. He escaped his minders when he was performing in Toronto. Joan drove the getaway car to New York, where he resumed his career as the world’s greatest male dancer. Inevitably, he and Joan whirled into a passionate affair. Then just as inevitably, this almost congenitally unfaithful man left her for a Russian ballerina, explaining that he wanted to marry a “very good dancer” and Ludmilla had that qualification, but Joan did not.

When the novel opens, Joan is petting Ludmilla’s nasty dachshunds, and thinking about her pregnancy, which she is hiding so she can spend a final few days dancing before she marries her high-school friend Jacob. She’s ready for a new life with him — a life without the grueling work of ballet and its constant pressure, which, in her case, will never be rewarded with supreme success.

Author Maggie Shipstead establishes most of this in the first few pages, then shifts her story back and forth in time, focusing on events that take place between 1973 and 2002. This casts light on Arslan and eventually on his motivations. It also illuminates Joan’s history as a dancer, then as wife and mother, and finally as a ballet teacher, whose star pupils, her own son Harry and the neighbors’ daughter Chloe, eventually make it to New York. Will they shine in the limelight that left Joan in shadow?

A lot of narrative energy is generated by this plot motor. Harry, in particular, is hugely talented, and as he matures he sometimes takes over from his mother as center of readers’ attention. Here the author’s knowledge of ballet and the iron laws of anatomy, training, drive and devotion that determine success, confirms that one of the pleasures of reading fiction is learning about milieus other than our own.

Another pleasure is watching the facts of a story morph into metaphors, for while ballet makes huge and unforgiving demands, is that not true of much in life, or at least much in the characters of certain people? Joan’s roommate, Elaine, is a soloist and destined to become ballet mistress. She smokes and takes drugs — but not in excess. “The key, she has said to Joan, is control. Control is the key to everything.” This dictum resonates through “Astonish Me.” Ballet requires extreme physical and psychological control, and ballet teachers such as Mr. K of Joan’s company and eventually Elaine and Arslan, rigorously control their students’ work and habits — but there are other sorts of control.

Joan, Elaine, Arslan and Ludmilla take control of their own lives, and they control other lives, too. Joan controls Jacob by whisking him to marriage when he’s only 24. Arslan controls Joan when he picks her to help him defect, and again when he abandons her for Ludmilla. People control others by loving them or failing to love, by choosing to keep or share secrets. As the novel progresses, questions about who controls what, and whether control is used for good or ill float around, at first like small balloons, but gradually inflating and soliciting attention.

This ability to let questions, and indeed information, emerge slowly until they develop greater insistence is one of Ms. Shipstead’s major talents. Her first novel, the best-selling “Seating Arrangements,” begins as a social comedy about a wedding on a New England island, and eventually emerges as a study of the character of a man nobody much likes. In “Astonish Me,” the ballet setting is etched as sharply as that middle-class family summering off the Northeast coast, and readers can get many pages into it before its darker concerns begin to take center stage.

Such control and handling of plot is an impressive literary skill in a young writer. (“Astonish Me” is only Ms. Shipstead’s second novel.) Similarly, her deft handling of detail to set her scene is impressive. Less convincing is her investigation of character. At times the motivations of the personnel of “Astonish Me” seems determined more by the demands of the story than by their personality and experience. This is most critically the case with Harry, but to some extent also true of Joan. Nonetheless, this novel is full of delights: those vivid scenes of New York, the evocation of the exigencies of the ballet, a rich sense of how people get along with each other and become serious friends.

Maggie Shipstead is a writer to watch.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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