Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

1. First lines 2. Published 2014 Penguin Random House 3. Benjamin Poirier by Carlos Quezada – National Dance Company / Mexico – 2013 [CC BY 2.0] via flickr Changes: cropped. 4. Eight women in purple tutu dresses dancing ballet on stage [Public Domain] via Pikrepo

The story spans thirty years from the early ‘70s. Joan is an American ballet dancer who, whilst dancing with her company in Paris, falls for Arslan, a Russian dancer, who she helps defect to America. The romance doesn’t last, Joan gives up ballet, and marries Jacob, a childhood friend. They move to California with their baby son Harry, but after many years, circumstances bring her and Arslan together again.


“How strange it was that a dream, once realized, could quickly turn mundane.” 

“Though she would never say so, Sandy holds the opinion that mothers who keep their figures have sacrificed less than mothers who have widened and softened.”

My opinion:

For a novel about ballet and ballet dancers, this book (I thought) was not overly melodramatic, and I found it to be well-written and pleasant to read. However, I didn’t feel connected to any of the characters, and I thought the ending was rushed compared to the pace of the rest of the book.

The opinion of others:
  • The New York Times: “… fictional works revolving around ballet so often default to melodrama. For her second novel, “Astonish Me,” Maggie Shipstead has leapt into this difficult territory — and landed, for the most part, on the same old stuff. Her book, which spans three decades and is told from multiple points of view, is at once a mash-up of late-20th-century ballet’s hottest tabloid hits.”
  • Time: “What might seem like one of the novel’s few letdowns is in some ways another one of its strengths: the quest for perfection is far more thrilling than actually achieving it.”
  • Guardian: “Astonish Me is a gripping, thoughtful and tightly-written novel, where ballet acts as an effective metaphor for all aspirations and disappointments.”

Maggie Shipstead

Other editions:


  1. I read this as a task for my Good Reads Challenge – to read a book with the theme of dance, which was very difficult for the very reason that most books I found with this theme are quite schmaltzy. This one at least has a bit of depth.


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