There is something endlessly fascinating about the world of professional ballet. We know it to be filled with ruthless competition and occasionally ugly scandals, but we only catch a glimpse of it when it is all dressed up for company. The heightened anxieties of an industry obsessed with youth, perfection and impossible discipline make an excellent stage for drama.
Maggie Shipstead knows this well, and trades on our fascination with dancers in her new novel, Astonish Me. The story opens in 1970s Manhattan, a violent place that is almost unrecognizable today. Joan Joyce is a young ballerina with a quiet routine, which mostly takes her from the New York apartment she shares with a roommate, to rehearsal, to performances, and home again. She is not a star, but a member of the corps; her job is to blend in.
This seems all right by Joan, at least for a while. But she did not end up at the New York City Ballet by accident, and we learn that she is not quite as unambitious as she seems. Her small life becomes fraught with drama when she meets Arslan Ruskov, a young Russian dancer who is already well on his way to international celebrity. The two have a brief encounter in Paris and end up exchanging letters, until Ruskov asks her to help him escape from the Soviet Union. Ruskov is a clear stand-in for Mikhail Baryshnikov, widely considered one of the best dancers in history, more recently of Sex and the City fame. New York audiences love Ruskov, not only because he is extraordinary, but “also for having been born to the enemy, and coming to dance for them instead.”
Joan, on the other hand, is an unremarkable dancer, at least by the standards of the NYCB. Being touched by greatness is always a mixed blessing, and for Joan it confirms that her ambitions exceed her talent. To his surprise and delight, she gets involved with Jacob, her best friend from high school and a longtime admirer. When she becomes pregnant, she decides to retreat from the dance world for good. She marries Jacob and settles down for an ordinary life in a pristine Southern California suburb.
Of course, Joan’s story does not end there. We follow her back and forth across the country, the novel toggling between past and present, as we try to piece together exactly what unfolded between her and Ruskov. Joan is tortured by a single unanswered question: why Ruskov chose her to help him defect from the Soviet Union, and to briefly share his spotlight.
Astonish Me is Shipstead’s second novel, and in some ways, it is the opposite of her first. The action of Seating Arrangements, her 2012 debut, inhabited one boozy weekend in Nantucket, while Astonish Me spans continents, decades, and generations: from a theater in Paris to the grit and sweat of New York City in the ’70s; from the neat lawns of the Southern California suburbs in the ’90s to the almost-present day, back in New York. (When Joan returns to the city she feels gentrification “like a betrayal, as though it had purposely waited until she left to undergo a course of self-improvement and was now putting on airs.”) But though it covers immense time and space, this book is not what one would call “sweeping.” It is, like the dancers who populate its pages, small, elegant, and restrained. The novel is more interested in the flaws of its characters than in politics. The Cold War and even ballet are just backdrop for what is ultimately a love story, though not the one that you’re expecting. In the end, the novel is about the choices we make, and how they make us.
What is more familiar from Shipstead’s first novel is her beautiful prose style and incredible knack for social observation. During an awkward moment at a dinner party, most of the characters descend into laughter, and one humorless guest asks if they’ve gotten it out of their systems with “an air of beleaguered dignity, like the only sober one in a room full of drunks.” Shipstead also turns this keen critical eye on ballet itself. She writes, “Love in a ballet is something that does not exist and then suddenly does, its beginning marked by pantomime, faces fixed in rapture, a dance.”
If there is one thing not to like about this novel, it is only that it is perhaps a little too neat. The many story lines eventually converge, the mysteries are solved, and all is tied up with a bow. But that neatness might have been the very thing that made the book such a total pleasure to read. And in the hands of a writer as skilled as Shipstead, one doesn’t mind a happily ever after once in a while.