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Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

Astonish Me

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Sarah Broadhurst's view...

May 2014 Book of the Month.

A tale of the nature of talent, of personal achievement, of the shadow of the past and of ballet. The author writes beautifully, having won the world’s largest award for writers under 30, the Dylan Thomas Prize, for her first novel, Seating Arrangements. This is not as clever but it’s a lovely read of two generations of couples obsessed with dance. There is some fascinating detail on creating modern ballet.

In addition to our Lovereading expert opinion some of our Reader Review Panel were also lucky enough to read and review this title.

If you like Maggie Shipstead you might also like to read books by Michael Frayn, Anne Tyler and Liza Klaussmann.

Who is Sarah Broadhurst

The Good Book Guide logo The Good Book Guide Review. As a young ballerina, Joan helped the famous Russian dancer, Arslan, defect to the West and fell desperately in love with him. The affair ended cataclysmically for Joan; she realises she was never truly star quality and retires from ballet, relinquishing her dreams for a marriage and child. But, as her son grows up, she recognizes he possesses the talent she had dreamed of, and ballet, and Arslan, insidiously creep back in to her life with unexpected and devastating consequences. A multi-faceted tale, rich and absorbing.
~ The Good Book Guide

Reader Reviews

  • Julie Wragg -'An elegantly written story of the world of ballet, talent and the search for perfection...Overall, it’s a fascinating and captivating read.' Read full review >
  • Catherine Price - 'A love of ballet inspires and informs every page of Astonish Me. Maggie Shipstead explores the consequences of committing one's life to the pursuit of perfection, onstage and off.' Read full review >
  • Jane Birchall - 'Astonish Me is a thoroughly engrossing, intelligent read about a dancer's hopes and dreams and of having to face the realities of life.' Read full review >
  • Sarah Hamid - 'Overall, I found this a satisfying read which left me feeling I wanted to find out more about the world of ballet and the theme of defection.' Read full review >
  • Cathy Small - 'Great writing and a thoroughly enjoyable read.' Read full review >
  • Sue Broom - 'Ballet has always been a mystery to me but I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in their world as described here.  Powerful writing, great characters and a riveting story.  Loved it.' Read full review >
  • Evelyn Love- Gajardo - 'Fascinating study of ambition and talent in the world of ballet.' Read full review >
  • Berwyn Peet - 'Fascinating and unusual story with a ballet background.' Read full review >
  • Elaine Robertson - 'I am not a ballet fan, but I still enjoyed the book greatly...The story is elegant, involving and a joy to read.' Read full review >
  • Angela Rhodes - 'as you get to know Joan and her story you care what happens, you feel her pain, her enthusiasm for dance, for life, and come away breathless.' Read full review >
  • Megan Williams - 'Astonish Me is a novel steeped in the world of ballet that explores complex emotions, family ties, and relationships.'  Read full review >
  • Sarah Mustafa - 'Maggie Shipstead's book is a cleverly observed one about ballet, lost love and relationships in all their various guises.  I really enjoyed this book, which kept me engaged right to the end.' Read full review >
  • Laura Anne Paton - 'A very entertaining and engaging read...I would highly recommend this book.' Read full review >
  • Carolyn Huckfield - 'Even if you are not interested in ballet it is a great read that is a fascinating portrayal of self-absorption and the deception of others as well as yourself.' Read full review >

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Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

From the prize-winning author of Seating Arrangements comes an exquisitely written, fiercely compelling glimpse into the demanding world of professional ballet and its magnetic hold over two generations. Astonish Me is the irresistible story of Joan, a young American dancer who helps a Soviet ballet star, the great Arslan Rusakov, defect in 1975. A flash of fame and a passionate love affair follow, but Joan knows that, onstage and off, she is destined to remain in the shadows. After her relationship with Arslan sours, Joan decides to make a new life for herself. She quits ballet, marries a good man, and settles into the rhythm of Californian life with their son, Harry. But as the years pass, Joan comes to understand that ballet isn't finished with her yet: for there is no mistaking that Harry is a prodigy. Inevitably Joan is soon pulled back into a world she thought she'd left behind and back to Arslan. Gripping and dramatic, Astonish Me is a story about the nature of talent, the choices we must make in search of fulfilment, and how we can never truly escape from the secrets of the past.


'So graceful, so dazzling, so sure-handed and fearless, that at times I had to remind myself to breathe. Astonish Me is a treasure of small surprises'
Maria Semple

'Shipstead is a gifted writer who examines families and relationships in a poignant, insightful way'

'Etonnez-moi, Diaghilev famously challenged Jean Cocteau: 'Astonish me.'

's a fair description of what Maggie Shipstead did to me on nearly every page of this impressive novel. Like its subject, the ballet, this book is intricately choreographed, technically demanding, yet seemingly relaxed, written in a prose of great emotional range and acuity. I will be paying close attention to Shipstead's career from here on in'
Jeffrey Eugenides

'A supple, daring, and vivid portrait of desire and betrayal'
Booklist (starred review)

About the Author

Maggie Shipstead

Maggie Shipstead graduated from Harvard in 2005 and earned an M.F.A at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was also a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Her debut novel, Seating Arrangements, won the Dylan Thomas Prize and the LA Times Prize for First Fiction. Astonish Me is her second novel.

Author photo © Alisha & Brook Photography

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Book Info

Publication date

8th May 2014


Maggie Shipstead

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Blue Door an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers


368 pages


Literary Fiction
Books of the Month
Family Drama
Literary Fiction
Reading Groups
eBook Favourites
eBook Favourites

Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945)



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