The ballet dancers in Maggie Shipstead’s novel, Astonish Me, are engaged in a daily war against their mortal limitations. Equal parts brutality and beauty, ballet sends each character through a gauntlet of perfectionism, and dancers must accept a life that will require tough sacrifices in exchange for the elusive possibility of transcendence. Limits of body, mind, talent, and even birthplace are defining forces of this world.
At the heart of Astonish Me is Joan, a somewhat anonymous young corps dancer who understands her talent’s limitations. Even if Joan will never rise to the level of principal dancer, her desire for aesthetic perfection knows no bounds. She becomes infatuated with the Russian phenomenon Arslan Rusakov. Speculation about Arlsan’s possible defection to America has already begun to gather steam when he and Joan cross paths in a storied Parisian theater, leading to an encounter that will change their lives.
Ignoring the fact that Arslan’s rehearsal is private, Joan sneaks into an empty box in the loge of the theater and watches him dance. “His movements are quick but unhurried, impossible in their clarity and difficulty and extraordinary in how they seem to burst from nowhere, without any apparent effort or preparation,” Shipstead writes. “But the beauty of Arslan’s dancing is not what moves Joan to cry in her red velvet aerie: it is a dream of perfection blowing through the theater. She has been dancing since before her fifth birthday, and she realizes that the beauty radiating from him is what she has been chasing all along, what she has been trying to wring out of her own inadequate body.”
Arslan chooses Joan to help him defect. Afterward, he proves to be a difficult lover: “He will vanish after a performance without telling her where he is going. She might catch a glimpse of him leaving the theater with a sparkling flock of strangers in evening clothes, his arm around some woman’s waist. She is always losing him, but he is never quite lost.” Their romance is disintegrating, but for reasons Joan cannot quite define, “they remain inextricably, inconclusively enmeshed.”
Throughout this heartbreak, Joan clings to the routine she knows best—showing up to the barre each morning. She and her roommate Elaine have long ago accepted the self-abnegation that professional ballet demands, trained to interpret all kinds of brutality as the means to achieving the appearance of effortless beauty: starvation, bloodied feet, relentless criticism, ill-advised sexual encounters, or even a quick line of coke during intermission.
As Elaine’s star is rising, Joan is letting go of the dancer’s life, setting aside the glories of the stage for an unexpected pregnancy and marriage to an old high-school friend. Elaine wonders if the heartbreak of losing Arslan is too much for Joan. Does she really need to run all the way to a safe suburban life to forget him? How does her long-cultivated demeanor of exquisite distance appear to her neighbors, or even to her husband? Can her dramatic history of international love and loss ever fit neatly inside an ordinary life?
A rich contrast to Joan’s domesticity, Elaine has chosen the fragile yet cutthroat dance company as her family. The company director, the legendary Mr. K, has chosen Elaine as his lifelong muse, an unorthodox relationship that requires her to relinquish her sense of self to a large degree. For years, she has been a vessel for someone else’s genius, an arrangement she sums up by saying, “It’s an honor and an insult.”
When Elaine visits Joan, she reflects on her own choices while watching Joan teach a class of neighborhood women: “They are ungainly in their leotards, wearing slippers, not pointe shoes, and not turned out. But the sight of them is touching, triggers a gloating pride in Elaine that these women wish to do what she does. She had wondered if she would feel jealous of Joan with her family and easy life, but she feels only pleasure in her own existence, her freedom from the ordinary.”
In Astonish Me, leaving behind the ordinary always comes at a price. Even the simple desire for more will lead to a reckoning. The thrilling moment a dancer sails through the air—suspended there for longer than seems possible in the mortal world—must be paid for in decades of sacrifice. Shipstead’s characters move in constant, unfolding ensemble with one another. They are staged, in the best sense. Even as their loves, betrayals, foibles, and triumphs feel inevitable and destined, they also feel bold and true.
[This article appeared originally on August 21, 2014. It has been updated to reflect new event information.]
Emily Choate holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College, and her writing has appeared in Yemassee and Tennessee Libraries and is forthcoming in The Florida Review. She lives in her hometown, Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.