BookPage Fiction Top Pick, April 2014

The title of Maggie Shipstead’s second novel, Astonish Me, is a fitting one indeed. It’s a request, a demand, a dare, all wrapped up in two little words, heavy with promise. And like the prima ballerina at the heart of the novel itself, Shipstead delivers a glorious story that does exactly what it says it will.

Superficially, Astonish Me is about the world of professional ballet: It is the story of Joan, a woman whose life is first shaped by her love of dance, and then by her love for an extraordinary Russian dancer (and defector). We follow Joan back and forth through time, from girl to grown woman, watching as passion propels her forward, heedless of the consequences and pain that are the ultimate fallout from such explosive affaires de coeur. As Joan’s pirouettes slowly morph into downward spirals both on and off the stage, the novel becomes a deeply thoughtful meditation on the relentless pursuit of perfection and just how far we’re willing to go for love.

Astonish Me is an awful lot of fun to read—the plot moves at a quick clip and is deeply engrossing—but it has a satisfying weight and delicious darkness that undercuts the sudsier elements. Shipstead’s writing isn’t showy, but dazzles nonetheless with vivid imagery and startling turns of phrase. Given that her last novel, Seating Arrangements, won the Dylan Thomas prize, there is a lot riding on this follow-up; far from a sophomore slump, this novel proves that Shipstead’s star is still on the rise as she pushes herself to exhilarating new heights. For those who might dismiss the book as “chick lit” masquerading as serious fiction, rest assured that Astonish Me is as nuanced and delightful as any reader could ever hope for a book to be.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Maggie Shipstead for Astonish Me.

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