Melodramatic and fascinating, Astonish Me explores the cloistered, rarefied world of ballet in 1970s New York, Chicago, and later in Southern California. Much of the story is about the life of ballerina Joan, who marries Jacob and has a son called Harry. She attempts to turn him into a carbon copy of famous dancer Arslan Rusakov, whom she helped defect to the West.
Married to a fellow Kirov dancer, seductive Arslan loves his girls as much as he loves his art. He’s a known philanderer who left everything behind to pursue his dreams in the arms of his talented paramours. It’s only natural, then, that Joan and her best friend and current soloist, Elaine, are in awe of this dance lothario who defies gravity and sends the audience’s spirits soaring every time he’s on stage. Manipulative career rivals, Joan and Elaine are also roommates, and there’s a sense of togetherness as they traverse Manhattan’s glamorous nightclubs and parties, where the glittering people “loom out of the smoke.”
When Joan becomes pregnant, (“the tiny cells clinging to her in a secret that is as translucent and luminous as a firefly”), she travels to Chicago and into the arms of her high school sweetheart, Jacob, who proves to be the ideal husband: “forgiving, comforting and patient.” Desperate and sad, a new sensation of purpose soars over Joan with the birth of beloved Harry. Encased in her Southern California home, Joan nonetheless becomes bitter and disappointed at the way her life has turned out, though she makes a decent living as a ballet teacher. Her caring and admiration for Chloe, her neighbor’s daughter, is never done to spite one-time rival Elaine, but is simply one artist acknowledging and encouraging another for the sake of their art. For her part, Chloe resents her overweight mother Sandy. Unaware of her physical limitations, Chloe is drawn to the fading prima ballerina living next door who invites her to take class each morning.
Back in New York, Elaine enjoys a wave of popularity, riding on the back of Arslan’s popularity; the audience loves him for having been born to “the enemy” and for coming to dance for them. More rebellious than Joan, Elaine ingests a steady but restricted diet of cocaine without apparent consequence (“a bump before the show to give her confidence”). A rather freewheeling soul, Elaine has had many men over the years. She never loves them, except perhaps Mr. K., the company’s officious artistic director. Like her endless coke addiction, Elaine’s love for her commanding instructor is something she’s positive can be “managed.”
In chapters that unfold like the many layers of a painting, Shipstead posits an entire range of jealousy, humiliation, aging, love, and friendship. The novel begins in 1977 in a company class, the scenes familiar and distinctive to the ballet lover, the dancers mostly stunning in their self-involvement and sense of accomplishment. Together with the stretching, the barre work, the gentle clatter of the piano, and Mr. K’s endless patrols, Shipstead sets the tone for what is an intriguingly researched extrapolation of ballet and a tale that captures the horrid feeling of being young and talented but always feeling inadequate in an insular, sophisticated world.
Joan recognizes that her career has run its course, that she will teach and not perform; it was Arslan who once seemed to swallow her up. They appear alone in Paris, where she meets him while dancing for the Paris Opera Ballet. They share an idealistic vision of art, and her adoration gives Arslan the sense of rescue and abandonment from a mediocre future. Hampered by her shortcomings as a dancer, it is ridiculous for Joan to expect that a man as brilliant, and hungry and capricious, and also as sort-after as Arslan could make a rewarding object for her love.
The real story begins after Joan acknowledges that, like Arslan, Harry will dance. Harry seems to have a natural and enduring talent. He’s only just beginning to revel in the temple of his body—“its small neatness, and its precision”— in a world where few boys have the physical stamina for ballet or are prepared to endure the perpetual schoolyard taunting. The conflict comes from Harry’s love for Chloe, a love lodged deep within him before he can remember, a love that becomes more complicated as he grows older. Their friendship is understandable in the context of Gary, Chloe’s troubled father, who sadly becomes disillusioned with his marriage and his life. Sandy, Joan, and Jacob become caught up in Gary’s tragedy, as well as the constant, magnetic tug that is Arslan Rusakov.
Although the author’s nonlinear narrative sometimes interrupts the flow of the novel, her subdued prose style steadily builds the tension, culminating in the uncovering of a secret that a youthful Joan elaborately constructed to avoid exposing the truth. Thanks to Shipstead, I have a different perspective on the mystique of ballet and the trials of devoting oneself to an artistic life, a life that transcends time and place. Most valuable is Shipstead’s account of Arslan’s defection (obviously inspired by Mikhail Baryshnikov). Riveting is how he perceives ballet’s limitations, its glories and its future, and the artistic paranoia that existed in the USSR: a system that once built magnificent dancers and then proceeded to smother them.