Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Astonish Me was a different sort of book for me, but I ended up thoroughly enjoying it! We follow Joan, an aspiring ballet dancer turned teacher, from the 70s through a post 9/11 world.

Jacob fell in love with Joan when they were children, but Joan’s true love was ballet. She met Arslan, a remarkable Russian dancer, while working in Paris. She fell in love with him and they exchanged letters for a while. Imagine her surprise when she received a letter asking her to help him defect from Russia, a country that was controlling and stifling their most creative minds.

After a brief honeymoon period following his defection, Arslan and Joan drifted apart. Arslan helped another dancer defect from Russia and eventually married this woman. Joan’s heartbreak drove her back to Jacob, with whom she quickly became pregnant and had to leave the love of her life: ballet.

Joan and Jacob’s son, Harry, becomes a remarkable dancer himself. At times, Shipstead wove in seemingly disconnected stories involving neighbors, old roommates, or other random characters. But everything tied together at some point – and isn’t that life? All of these disconnected events that seem unimportant at the time but come to shape our identities?

This was a simplistic description of a richly woven and complicated story. What happens when one’s very identity is threatened? How do we hold onto pieces of ourselves that we are too afraid to lose? And what happens when we loosen that grip just a bit?

I saw this author compared to Elena Ferrante somewhere, which made me want to read the Neopolitan Novels even more. Too many books!!


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