Ballerinas, Y’all! (Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead)

April 9, 2014 Contemporary Fiction 32

Bonjour, Bookworms!

I feel like greeting you in French because ballet lingo is all in French, and today, we’re talking about le danse! When I saw Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead in the Netgalley catalog, I requested it IMMEDIATELY. I have a soft spot for dance, what can I say? I spent most of my childhood dancing (not well, mind you, but dancing none the less) so I couldn’t help myself. I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. No ballerinas were harmed in the reading of this novel. 

astonishmeAstonish Me centers on  a dancer named Joan. She’s in the corps (AKA, the background) of a professional ballet company without much hope of advancement. Ballet is a cruel mistress, and genetically perfect feet, hips, turnout, and stature can dictate a dancer’s future regardless of effort, and our dear Joan was stuck in the shallow end of that gene pool. Joan’s dancing career is second only to her personal life on the suck-o-meter. She is recovering from a bad breakup with her impossibly talented ballet boyfriend, who has replaced Joan with a gorgeous Russian prima ballerina… A rebounding Joan decides to take a trip to visit the boy who worshiped her in high school (Jacob) for an ego boost. Aaaaaand she winds up pregnant.

Joan relinquishes the ballet life in New York and settles into family life. She marries Jacob, who is still infatuated with her. She tries to adjust to the life of a suburban wife, but soon is called again by ballet. Joan begins to teach dance lessons, sculpting both her son and her neighbor’s daughter into impressive dancers. She watches as they are enveloped in the world she loved and lost.


You guys, this book was SO GOOD. It had family drama with a dash of politics and a heaping side of ballet. All the neuroses and the ugly calloused feet! The obsession and the dedication and the struggle with mediocrity! The love and the hate and the drugs and the madness all wrapped into one glorious story. If you have any interest in ballet, dance, or just one heck of a good story, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Astonish Me

Because I lack pride, boundaries, and I still have an affinity for tutus, I’m including this little ballerina Katie retrospective for your viewing pleasure. Forgive my lack of photography skills, I was trying to snap cell phone pictures of prints in an album, because I am the laziest person on planet earth.

Dance was, as I’ve mentioned, my #1 recreational activity as a kid. What about you, Bookworms? Any other adolescent ballerinas? Soccer stars? Little League sluggers? Show choir? Tell me about it!

*If you make a purchase through a link on this site, I will receive a small commission.*



32 Responses to “Ballerinas, Y’all! (Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead)”

  1. Heather

    I was a dancer for many, many years. I gave it up for a very stupid reason and that is the only regret I have in life. Wish I’d never given it up.

    I definitely need to read this book.

  2. Quirky Chrissy

    I took ballet and tap when I was very young…but cheerleading is what captured my heart (and took responsibility for 80% of my teenage injuries).

  3. Heather @ Capricious Reader

    Bonjour, mon amie!

    You have more guts that me. The world will never see my 8 year old self in a tutu! No way no how! I was way too scrawny to be wearing that…stuff.

    The BOOK sounds great though! I’ll have to look for it.

    • Words For Worms

      LOL, I deliberately chose photos that were taken before puberty got the better of me. There are some distinctly unflattering shots of me looking… Well. A bit lumpy. Spandex. Pfft.

  4. Megan M.

    This sounds gooooood. I never took dance – my thing was chorus. I wasn’t technically in a show choir but my high school chorus would do one or two performances every year where we did choreography – we did Grease, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables – it was SO much fun. There’s a documentary on Netflix called “First Position” that follows a few ballet dancers getting ready for a national competition. It’s pretty good!

  5. Ashley F

    Dance and I don’t mix. Apparently my mom put me in ballet when I was 3 and I cried hysterically for the first 4 classes so she pulled me out. BUT they soon realized I had an affinity for music. I started taking piano lessons when I was 4 or 5 and did 10 years of Royal Conservatory training. That’s hardcore classical piano ya’ll! I was also in the school choir and my church choir (joys of going to Catholic School). I did a vocal solo at my elementary school graduation ceremony in grade 8. I was shitting bricks and in front of about 500 people but I was the only one who could handle the pitch sequence in a certain part of the song so I did the whole verse by my lonesome. And apparently my father missed it because he was going to the bathroom.

    • Words For Worms

      Ooooh I didn’t know you were a kickin’ piano player! FUN! I’m sure your solo was beautiful, even if your old man missed it for a bathroom break. Sigh.

  6. Charleen

    I took dance lessons back in grade school, although I was always more partial to tap than ballet. Also, my high school had “Dance Arts” as a P.E. elective for juniors and seniors, which I took three out of those four semesters. Huzzah for not having to play sports and run laps!

    • Words For Worms

      I am SO JEALOUS that you had PE Options. I’d have been ALL OVER dance arts. Alas, I think my school was in a constant budget crisis because it was all sports and running. Ugh. I have been hit in the head with every single sports ball imaginable, plus a hockey puck and a badminton birdie. I still detest running.

  7. Tanya

    You liked Astonish Me much more than I did i think. I grabbed it immediately because it was Shipstead and I loved Seating Arrangements, but wasn’t so fond of this one. That’s not to say it wasn’t good, it just wasn’t my thing. I didn’t have the whole dance connection like you did. For the record, I was a figure skater and wore some pretty horrific outfits in my day.

  8. Rory

    I took ballet as part of gymnastics for several years. I was a pretty decent gymnast, I very much have the build for it (muscular and the astounding height of 5’1″). I gave up gymnastics as a teenager and turned to running and swimming. In college, I took four years of kickboxing. I still miss all of those things a little bit. Now my laziness knows no bounds…

    I liked this one too. Maggie Shipstead is one talented lady (as I LOVED Seating Arrangements too).

    • Words For Worms

      I always wanted to be able to do a back handspring. I have an unhealthy obsession with backflips. The only sport I ever get jazzed about watching is gymnastics (and to a lesser extent, diving) because BACKFLIPS! (I clearly need to read Seating Arrangements because Maggie Shipstead is completely amazing.)

  9. Kelly

    My sister loves to dance – sounds like I need to buy this one for her!
    I remember Rebecca of BookRiot was dissapointed with the ending (I haven’t read it, just saying…)

  10. lisa g

    Choir and theatre here! (Hi Jim). Dance requires a certain degree of grace that don’t have, but the book still sounds super interesting. My TBR list grows by leaps and bounds thanks to you.

  11. Jenny @ Reading the End

    I did ballet for approximately five minutes when I was tiny, and then I gave it up and did choir instead, which I liked a good bit better. That said, I LOVE reading books about ballet, and I can’t understand why there aren’t way way way more books set in the ballet world. It seems like such a great and fascinating setting!

    (Oo, CW show centered around ballet. Who can we talk to that can make that happen?)

    • Words For Worms

      JENNY! I hate to have to tell you this, but there was a ballet show. It was completely wonderful, done by the writing team behind Gilmore Girls. It was on ABC Family and was TRAGICALLY cancelled after one season. I’m still not over it. RIP, Bunheads!

    • Words For Worms

      Hahahaha! I totally went to see Center Stage in the theater! And then I recognized the lead actress in a McDonald’s commercial for Shamrock shakes last year.

  12. Katie @ Doing Dewey

    I did ballet in elementary school too 🙂 I don’t gravitate towards book about dance in particular, but this book does appeal to my love of behind-the-scenes look at any profession. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much!

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