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Life Pirouettes   Leave a comment

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Once I was able to get beyond the similarities, of which there are many to the 1977 movie The Turning Point, I found myself enjoying Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me. Actually, what I appreciated, and what kept me turning pages, were the various characters in this ballet-driven narrative that blends unrequited love, the ideal of loyalty, personal disappointment, deceit and triumph.

The focal point is Joan’s infatuation with Russian ballet star Arslan Rusakov and her inability to convincingly let go of her feelings long after she has gone on to what can only be described as a normal life in the suburbs with her husband and son, Harry. Shipstead deftly portrays Joan’s transformation from an unhappy member of the (ballet) corps to contented, if not exuberant, resident of Southern California where she teaches ballet.

The story moves through different phases of Joan’s life from the mid-1970s to 2002. Arslan remains prominently in the background while the focus is on Joan, Harry, and Chloe, the girl next door. With Joan as their teacher, they ultimately become enamored with ballet so it becomes a force in their lives.

Again, the characters provide the strength of the novel. Chloe is particularly interesting as a young child and later as a young woman. Her parents may be caricatures of unfulfilled lives, especially her father, but their daughter consistently maintains a strong sense of self.

It also helps that Shipstead is an engaging story teller who incorporates humor (in small doses) and irony (in larger servings).

Astonish Me
Four Bookmarks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
257 pages

 

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