Enough time has passed. Everyone can agree the Cold War was good for one thing: ballet.
A Soviet ballet dancer’s defection could make front page news in those days, and a teenage girl wearing a Danskin leotard needed only look to her poster of Mikhail Baryshnikov to understand the geopolitical dynamics of her time. The simplistic narrative was beguiling, but misleading: Freedom for a dancer wasn’t a matter of borders, because it was actually the profession itself that demanded total sacrifice, complete allegiance.
Maggie Shipstead’s elegant and forceful new novel, “Astonish Me,” swoops into an imagined American ballet world at its cultural peak, where the pursuit of artistic perfection is harrowing at best. The story belongs to Joan Bintz and is shaped and told through the friends, colleagues, and lovers who come in and out of her life. As in a ballet, some of the drama is slyly withheld offstage, heightening the suspense, so the narrative unfolds in choreographed bursts of precision and exuberance.
Shipstead favors cloistered, exclusive worlds with deeply ingrained rules and rituals. Her acclaimed debut novel, “Seating Arrangements,” is a WASP immersion experience set on a Nantucket-like island during an eventful wedding weekend.
“Astonish Me” takes place in no less rarified environs, but its range is more expansive: The story spans three decades, two generations, and roams from New York to Paris, with stops in Chicago and Toronto. But it returns, again and again, to a featureless Southern California suburb, where Joan has settled into the life of a ballet teacher with her husband and son.
Despite having practiced battements at the barre since she was four years old, Joan’s glory years are brief — she notes that dancer’s careers are accelerated “like dog years” — and not very glorious. She dances in the corps for a celebrated and imperious Russian choreographer, Mr. K, who bestows on his favorite young dancers gifts of perfume, an act of influence more than generosity. Though never good enough to earn the honor of Mr. K creating a ballet for her, she does garner his respect by driving the getaway car for a famous Soviet dancer, Arslan Rusakov, when he defects to the United States.
It should be noted that Mr. K calls to mind George Balanchine, and Arslan bears enough resemblance to Baryshnikov that it is hard not to picture him as such. But Shipstead creates such a vivid and convincing world that there is no need to overlay it with historical comparisons.
Indeed, the way Joan and her more talented roommate, Elaine, navigate their careers is wholly absorbing: the obsession with self-control, the physical rigors of company life, the jealousies and constant disappointments. There is something a little bit punk and a little bit prim about these waif women, desperate and scrappy, living on cigarettes, half bananas, and their crippling ambition.
Joan is talented, but not enough, which is noted to devastating effect when Arslan, her lover, throws her over for a better ballerina. “All her life she has wished for more talent,” thinks Joan, “for better feet, longer arms, and the fact that her wishes have gone unfulfilled now seems like vindictive cosmic spite.”
After a lifetime spent training her body to meet the exacting standards of her art, Joan considers giving up and seeks comfort in Jacob, her childhood friend and now a PhD student in Chicago. Weeks later, she’s pregnant, and the fate of her career is decided for her: “For most of the women Joan knows, a child is unthinkable. The body has already been offered up; the body is spoken for.” One wonders whether Joan’s body will ever be fully her own.
Jacob lives in his mind as much as Joan lives in her body. An intellectually precocious kid whose mother skips him ahead in school, Jacob spends his adolescence pining for Joan, a fellow outsider with deeply felt dreams. Jacob and Joan now married move to Southern California, so that he can oversee a program for gifted children. Their son, Harry, begins ballet at his mother’s school, and Shipstead’s story takes a bold and thrilling turn.
“Astonish Me” is filled with relationships that mirror each other, a fitting device for characters warped into self-scrutinizing narcissists. (Arslan’s apartment wall, even, is mirrored.) By habit, instinct, or happenstance, they find their pasts reflected in the present: The neighbors’ daughter Chloe, for instance, shows terrific promise as a young ballerina, becoming Joan’s protégé; at the same time Joan’s old friend Elaine becomes a mentor to Harry in New York.
The way the characters come together in new and surprising pairings is one of the book’s many pleasures, and it sets the stage for a cruel, but inevitable heartbreak. As Elaine notes, “Love for ballet is necessary to survive it.” Which begs the question, how much love do these folks have left to give to each other? For all their talent, charisma, and astonishing ambition, Shipstead’s dancers are often oblivious to that most basic element of artistic expression: empathy.