By Maggie Shipstead
Alfred Knopf, 2014. 253 pgs.
Maggie Shipstead's second novel Astonish Me is nothing short of astonishing. I read her first (Seating Arrangements), which I like well enough, but here she emerges to a new level of writing with brilliant pacing, tempo and execution. I enjoyed every moment of reading this book and was struck by the sparse, exacting style that she has perfected.
The story centers around the ballet world spanning the last four decades and loosely based on the real life stories of Mikhail Baryshnikov (a famous male dancer who defected from the USSR) and George Balanchine (a famous choreographer who also came from Russia and was the director of the New York City Ballet for years and attributed as the father of the American style). Through this world of intense dedication, single focus, precision, and beauty emerges a story that unfolds with the drama, intensity, and brilliance of a ballet. The narrative jumps back in forth in time, slowly building like a swell of music, and crescendos with a confluence of relationships that are both highly dysfunctional, and perfectly choreographed.