What if the most exciting part of your life occurs before you're old enough to appreciate it? In some ways that's what happened to Jules Jacobson in Meg Wolitzer's “The Interestings” (See my blog). For Joan Joyce in Maggie Shipstead's Astonish Me it comes when, after she has slavishly devoted her childhood and adolescence to ballet, she is accepted into a company and moves to New York. There she confronts what must be the case for many talented young people – she is very good but she will never be great. And she meets someone who is great – the charismatic Russian dancer Arslan Rusakov. Improbably, he chooses Joan to help him defect, and for a time they are lovers and she can bask in his reflected glory.
But when the relationship inevitably fails, she chooses a very different Act II – marriage to her high school sweetheart, a child, and a new life in a Southern California suburb. As Joan struggles to let go of her perfectionism her husband Jacob struggles to make her content in this new life. When their son displays unusual talent as a dancer, Joan is drawn back into the dance world.
OK, I think I'm making this sound like a soap opera. But it's much more nuanced than that. Shipstead examines some universal themes – hopes and disappointments, ambition and envy. She shows the dangers when parents attempt to live through their children's lives. In addition, although I know only a modest amount about ballet, I thought Shipstead did a terrific job of describing the ballet world – the tedium and physical pain of the endless practice, the subtle but powerful differences between a competent dancer and an electrifying one. She captures the joy and pain of short-lived success at a young age and its long term effects on the life that follows.