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4.1 out of 5 stars33
4.1 out of 5 stars
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All Joan ever wanted from the age of 4 is to be a ballerina: but how do you cope when you’re talented, but just not talented enough?

This is very good on the fierce world of professional ballet: the relationships dancers have with their bodies, the torment of knowing that you’re not good enough to ever be principal ballerina, the agonies of ageing and finding your body starting to let you down.

The story overall, though, flits backwards and forwards from the 1970s to the 2000s, and feels unnecessarily disjointed rather than organic. It’s oddly passionless, and is a little light on characterisation. Arslan, for example, with his Tatar background, his defection from the USSR, and compelling magnetism seems too obviously drawn on Rudolf Nureyev, with Mr K an analogue for Balanchine.

This is an enjoyable read which treats ballet as a challenging profession rather than something that is all froth and tutus. All the same, it doesn't quite live up to the hyperbole and hype of the blurb above - 3.5 stars.

(This review is from an ARC courtesy of the publisher)
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Having adored Maggie Shipstead's début Seating Arrangements, I couldn't wait to get my hands on a copy of Astonish Me. Was I disappointed? 'Fraid so. Despite the fact that this is relaxation reading of the highest order - well written, nothing jars, a fairly engrossing, if predictable, story of ballet folk - I couldn't really see the point of it.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise then I'll have to hold my hands up because this has none of the complexity, wit and pathos of Seating Arrangements. There are odd moments when we get a tantalising glimpse of the earlier Steadman brilliance. Otherwise, this is mainly Ballet Shoes for grown-ups. With defection, pregnancy and fraying feet. 3.5 stars
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VINE VOICEon 27 August 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Having enjoyed Maggie Shipstead's debut novel, Seating Arrangements, I was looking forward to seeing what she would follow that up with and Astonish Me didn't disappoint in the slightest. I suspect I may have especially enjoyed it because it's set in the world of ballet, which I've loved ever since having ballet classes as a little girl, and I was only too happy to get the chance to delve back into it again. (I also think it helped that I'd just finished reading Christos Tsiolkas' Barracuda, which also deals with gifted individuals and the sacrifice and dedication required when trying to excel at something you love doing, and also the frustration felt when you don't quite achieve your goals. They're a good book pair!)

Astonish Me focuses on Joan, and it follows her and her family, friends and neighbours, and ballet colleagues and rivals, switching back & forth from different points in their lives between the early 1970s up to 2002, until all the pieces fall into place. And yes, they might have fallen into place a little too neatly at the end but it worked for me. I think that's because I really felt for her as a character, and even though I didn't always like the choices she sometimes made, I could see that they eventually got her to where she should have been when she first took them!

Astonish Me is an excellent read. Maggie Shipstead writes so well and so assuredly that Astonish Me seems like an effortless accomplishment, in much the same way that you don't see the hours and hours of practice and repetition and bleeding feet when a ballet dancer performs flawlessly on stage. It's a dazzling novel and one that I got thoroughly caught up in reading.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
After rave reviews for her debut novel, the pressure is certainly on for Maggie Shipstead to deliver with her second. Astonish Me is set in the cut-throat world of professional ballet, starting in the mid-70s with friends Joan and Elaine vying for the attention of the dictatorial choreographer known as Mr K. As you would expect, their lives are dominated by the need to keep their bodies in optimum shape for the punishing regimes they put them through, as well as the desire to be prima ballerina no matter what the cost.

Joan becomes obsessed with Russian dancer Arslan Rusakov who, this being the 70s, is trapped behind the Iron Curtain when he's not on tour with his company. When she becomes involved in a daring plot to help him to defect to the USA, Joan's gets a temporary taste of the glamorous, high risk lifestyle she's wanted for so long. The rest of the book focuses on Joan's stale marriage to childhood sweethart Jacob, and her efforts to nurture the talents of her son Harry, a promising dancer, which inevitably bring her back into Rusakov's orbit.

I didn't warm to Joan at all, which may be intentional as she's portrayed as a cold and prickly woman. Rusakov and Joan's friend Elaine appear equally ruthless but somehow more likeable, and I found the `non-dancers', particularly Joan's husband and her neighbour Sandy, the most sympathetic characters.

For someone like me who knew (or cared) very little about the world of ballet before reading the book, it proved to be a thought-provoking insight into a competitive and ruthless world. I particularly enjoyed the earlier sections which dealt with Rusakov's defection and would have preferred to have learned more about his earlier life, but I guess that's a different book altogether

(I was hovering between giving the book 3 or 4 stars, but plumped for 4 to try to balance out the unfair and distorted rating caused by a certain reviewer who gives every book he reads 1*!)
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a very well written story with credible settings and credible characters. It's plotted across two generations with complex relationships between them. The narrative weaves well through these relationships.

The main character is Joan. She's a member of the corps de ballet in a major international dance company. She doesn't think she dances very well- not as well as the soloist she lives with. But this is the classic problem of choosing who to compare yourself to, and the risks you run when you see only a few steps up and down a long line of various abilities. Joan gets through life, but not obviously entirely happily.

She helps a top Russian dancer with his defection to the west, and manages to relate to him, but not to keep up with him on the dance floor. He rejects her as "not good enough" and is soon dancing with other female soloists

Joan gets pregnant and marries a quiet childhood friend. She leaves the ballet company, heads home and has a son, founds a dance school, and helps her son learn to dance. He's got great ability. Her neighbours are rather different characters to Joan and her husband,but their daughter loves to dance and becomes a very good dancer, often dancing with Joan's son.

Eventually the two children move and meet Arslan, the Russian star- who ends up taking as their choreographer.

This is a well plotted novel, about ambition, ability, and its development. The question the book asks is really "Who is astonishing
who?"

This is a good novel, well plotted, interesting and complex. It's an enjoyable read and I think many others will enjoy it.
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on 5 August 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
A novel set around the world of ballet might not be enticing to many readers but Shipstead's many skills make this a rewarding read about the nature of talent, artistic expression and the quest for physical perfection. Joan is an American dancer who is good but who will never be great. Her life changes when she encounters Arslan, the star of the Russian ballet, and he enlists her to help him defect to the West. We follow their tempestuous relationship and the family life that Joan then makes for herself with another man. When her son begins to show a genuine talent for dance it will bring that whole world back into focus again. Shipstead goes through her narrative four times and it is a bit like applying paint to a canvas: each successive sweep of the brush helps us to see a fuller picture. This allows Shipstead to release her important information only when she needs to and this helps add to the suspense and revelation. She also writes well about dance and the novel is suffused with a touch of melodrama which seems entirely fitting. A fine performance.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is primarily the story of Joan, a ballet dancer, who although inspiring other people and capable of great passion, whether through chance or her own character (it’s up to you to decide) is unable to fulfill her ambitions.

Did she give up too easily? Was her ambition not robust enough to succeed, or was she just not good enough? It is difficult to tell because there is a lack of passion about the telling of Joan’s story. We are told about Arslan, his charisma and great talent, but it is not illustrated for us and therefore does not really communicate itself, nor does the power and magnetism of Mr K. This passion is crucial to the story, but we only see it very dimly at a remove. We don’t even get to know Joan well enough to understand why Jacob puts up with her coldness.

In the end, I found it difficult to engage with Joan. I just didn’t care enough about her. I was disappointed because the book promised much more. I feel that a lot was sacrificed to fit the spareness of the style.
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VINE VOICEon 30 December 2015
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Unlike many other reviewers I haven't read Maggie Shipstead's award-winning debut Seating Arrangements, but I was attracted to this novel by its ballet theme. I'm not a dancer, but I am a lifelong fan of all forms of dance, and this compares well with other explorations of the tensions and sacrifices of the lifestyle such as The Red Shoes [DVD] (Special Edition) and Black Swan [DVD]. It's also an exploration of loyalty and obsession as well as human coping mechanisms when dreams don't work out, and the tension between ideals of perfection and ordinary human existence.

Maggie Shipstead could have used any kind of setting for this; it would work just as well set against environments such as sport or music, where there's a lot of pressure to make good while you're young. The author has a particular feeling and sympathy for dance, though, and her characters - aspirational corps de ballet member Joan, her more talented friend Elaine, godlike but selfish Russian defector Arslan - are credible and vivid. She tells her story in two timelines, one in the 70s when Joan helps Arslan to defect to the West and then falls in love with him, the other twenty years on when she's settled for a comfortable life as the wife of an academic. She thinks she's chosen safety and security, but when her son grows up to display all the talent she lacked, her choices are thrown into stark relief.

Shipstead has a lithe, readable style which relies on psychology and observation more than dialogue and drama. Although it might not be to everyone's taste, for me it was the perfect vehicle for exploring these characters and the moral and aesthetic choices they face. I thoroughly enjoyed it - and yes, I'll be picking up a copy of Seating Arrangements!
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VINE VOICEon 9 September 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Astonish Me is set in the competitive world of American ballet. Shipstead dissects the disappointments of her characters at the gap between dreams and reality.

The story jumps backwards and forwards in time between 1973 and 2002. As the novel opens in 1977, young dancer Joan has realised that she is never going to be a star, and when she becomes pregnant she drops out to marry her old schoolfriend Harry. She is also running away from a failed relationship with Arslan, another dancer, whom Joan helped to defect from the Soviet Union. Joan’s more talented friend Elaine continues her dance career.

The story jumps forward a few years to Southern California, where Joan, her husband and son have moved in next door to Sandy. The competitive focus has shifted to the women’s ambitions for their kids.

I was drawn to the ballet/theatre setting of the story, but there is little of the glamour and excitement associated with that environment here. What made it a good read was the characterisation, and Shipstead’s ability to maintain a fine balance of spiky wit and compassion. Shipstead’s characters are not always likeable, sometimes they do things which are frustratingly foolish, sometimes I found them really annoying, but they came to seem very real and I was drawn into caring about what might happen to them.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I didn't really understand the title until I had almost finished the novel. I wanted to take a peek at the ballet world, being in awe of their tremendous hard work and discipline in order to produce such artistic beauty. (Probably this interest has been residing in me since "Ballet Shoes" by Noel Streathfield).
In this novel Joan is the main character, a young ballerina who wants to be a better dancer than she can be, she is realistic about herself and when we meet her at the beginning of the book Joan knows she is pregnant and she is very happy about it.
The plot moves backward and forwards in time, a device that irritated me, (why can't the story just go forward)?
Then in the end you get why.
The characters are good but could have been brought to life more with fleshing out. There is a tidiness in the plot I don't like, real life is always so much more messy, but it's also ok because this is just a story and it is an interesting one.
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