Astonish Me/Maggie Shipstead: Reflections

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

I ache this summer for stories that move me. I have a nearly insatiable need. Prove yourself to me, I dare each book that I encounter. Prove to me that fiction, literature, this whole business matter.

Maybe it's the news. Maybe it's my age. I am looking for something particular in books. Urgency, not casual entertainment.

I went in and out with Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead's second novel about dancers, love, entanglements, second generations. In because Shipstead's command of the ballet seems pressing and real. Out because the story itself seemed perhaps too small, too familiar, too readily anticipated. In because Shipstead can write so beautifully. Out because of my own selfish need, just now, for more. In and out, for the writer in me knows how terribly difficult it is to craft a book, to finish one.

I choose, on this blog, to celebrate the good. To whisper back, over these silent airwaves, the sentences or emotions that appealed to me. Here, then, is Shipstead writing of a young woman, Joan, who is an incomplete ballerina—good enough, but not great. It is early in her life. She has discovered, on a stage, a young man who dances like she never will. She leans across the aerie and thinks:
The choreography is old-fashioned, but as Rusakov circles the stage doing high, perfect coupes jetes en tournant, his technique is not fusty but pure. His movements are quick but unhurried, impossible in their clarity and difficulty and extraordinary in how they seem to burst from nowhere, without any apparent effort or preparation. But the beauty of Arslan's dancing is not what moves Joan to cry in her red velvet aerie: it is a dream of perfection blowing through the theater. She has been dancing since before her fifth birthday, and she realizes that the beauty radiating from him is what she has been chasing all along, what she has been trying to wring out of her own inadequate body. Forgetting herself, she leans out over the railing, wanting to get closer. Etonnez-moi, Diaghilev had said to his dancers in the Ballets Russes. Astonish me.
I feel that chase. I understand it.


Serena said...

That is heartbreaking and yet so true, those words you post here. Sounds like a book with great potential. And with my own little ballerina, I can see how frustrating that would be -- to love something but know that you are not a virtuoso

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