Skinny People Are People Too

Astonish Me - Maggie Shipstead
How strange it was that a dream, once realized, could quickly turn mundane.

Not everyone can appreciate ballet, much less be a fan of it. I certainly am not. I find the discipline and the artistic egos of those who willingly subject themselves through physical and mental torture to achieve technical perfection more intriguing than the actual performance. People whose sole point of validation and happiness are the appreciation of others. With enough fervour to completely shun complex carbohydrates for extension, form and turnout? 

I mean, ofcourse I wanna know about these crazy and gorgeous people.

In the world of dancers, ballerinas are rockstars: ethereal and breathtaking in their narcissism.

”In ballet,” she went on, “when something’s really beautiful, I feel a lot, but not happy or sad, really. Just a feeling. With goose bumps. I like that.” After a momenth, she sighed and rolled onto her stomach, resting her forehead on her arms.
“If I can’t dance, I know I won’t die, but it feels like I will.”

In 1973, a mediocre ballerina from New York meets and falls in love with famed Russian dancer Arslan Ruskov. Joan’s tumultuous affair with Arslan begins when he entails her help in his defection to the United States, and ends when the discrepancy in their talents and futures in ballet became too evident to ignore. She eventually marries her childhood sweetheart Jacob Bintz and retires to California where they raise together their son, Harry, while she deals with the longing for the extraordinary world that she left behind by teaching ballet. Here she lives with the tedium of a reality still stained by a past that she simultaneously yearns and evades: envious and catty neighbours, starry-eyed little girls who want to be like her and a son who turns out to be a ballet prodigy himself. Unavoidably, Joan’s present and past draws closer and closer, with secrets long buried threatening to be unearthed and destroy the happiness she has settled for. 

What I liked most about Astonish Me was that while it already chose a topic that was fascinating to me (i.e. professional ballet in the shadows of the Cold War), it still went above and beyond what I expected. The story is divided into five parts, spanning from 1973 to 2002 told in a non-linear manner, focusing instead on the evolution of no less than six characters, both immersed and outside of that remarkable environment. Do not look for fancy twists and heart-stopping reveals in this one, it makes no claims to be a mystery. Whatever unspoken detail this may have harboured from the beginning, it never felt like it was belittling my intelligence by claiming it as the point of the story. You are EXPECTED to know things. This instead focuses on an exhaustive study of (more or less) six individuals tied together by their wants, their failures, their compromises and where that all leads them to.

And it was glorious.

It’s quite tedious to detail the merits of each character but between Joan and Harry’s story lines, the people they evolve and transition with were perfectly layered against each other. The delivery was indeed effortlessly elegant. Sometimes literary fiction and character studies can get too ostentatious, but here the prose had an approachable feel, one that you can get lost in, without feeling like finishing a chapter is pulling teeth. It was as luxuriant as it was enjoyable with wit and humour coming unexpectedly.

He defends his son and wife fiercely, and when she once asked Harry why he couldn’t have a hobby that wasn’t for queers, Jacob had taken her outside and told her she had a choice between being banned from seeing her grandson or shutting up. 
Still, he has wondered - wonders everyday - if Harry is gay. 
All he knows for sure is that his son envies another man’s ballon.

Oh Jacob, you and your unassuming milquetoast sweetness, dad jokes and friend-zone worthiness. 

There are books that makes you feel a little cheap after reading them, this had a plush quality that you just want to wrap around yourself. Except maybe Chloe and Arslan’s idea of a “revolutionary” ballet towards the end. That felt a like an overwrought cliche, something right out of the pages of Center Stage’s script. Or perhaps its just that I really hated Arslan, who was really an unapologetic gonad all throughout but nevertheless stood out (in his gonadic glory) in a cast that was already impressive.

I’m actually a little disappointed by the lack of an author’s note at the end because I was quite curious about the writing and research process of this book. Of how much of Arslan Ruskov was inspired by Mikhail Baryshnikov (who also defected into the US through Canada with the help of an American woman) and so on. 

But that aside, Astonish Me was, indeed, quite astonishing. (Sorry, I just had to.) 

ARC provided by the Random House-Knopf. Quotes taken from uncorrected proof and may not appear in the final edition.