Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

astonish me


I don’t know how I do it, but it seems that every book I pick up these days has at least a touch of Paris in it. The latest is Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf 2014), which I highly recommend.

You might have heard of this book by now. Even Oprah’s touting it. It’s a steamy story of love and ambition in the competitive world of professional ballet. It is the story of Joan, an American ballet dancer who is starstruck (why not just say “astonished?”) by a famous star of the Russian Kirov Ballet. Picture Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1975.

While Joan is spending a year as a quadrille, a junior member of the Paris Opéra Ballet, she watches Arslan Rusakov rehearse from one of the dark crimson red loge boxes at the Palais Garnier. Joan manages to evade the Kirov Ballet security men and enters the star’s dressing room, where she makes an unforgettable impression on him. Their encounter kicks off a clandestine Cold War love affair, fueled by secret love letters delivered through helpful intermediaries. Joan agrees to help Rusakov defect to the United States during one of his ballet tours to Toronto. Together, they are front-page news. But only for a time. The love affair dies and Joan moves forward with a life as a wife, mother and owner of her own ballet school in Southern California.

The whole book is good, from New York to Paris to California, but I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the passages set in Paris. No wonder, then, when I read the Acknowledgments at the back of the book (yes, I always read those, don’t you?) where Maggie Shipstead says: “Much of this book was written while I was in residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris.” You can tell.

Here is a passage from the book, which honest to God is one of the best paragraphs about visiting Paris I’ve ever read (and readers of this blog know I’ve read a lot):

For Joan, Paris has the feeling of waiting. All the elegance, the light and water and stone and refined bits of greenery, must be for something, something more than simple habitation and aggressive driving of Renaults and exuberant besmearing with dog shit. The city seems like an offering that has not been claimed. Its beauty is suspenseful. Joan has walked the boulevards and bridges and embankments, sat in the uncomfortable green metal chairs in the Tuileries, puttered down the Seine on a tourist barge, been to the top of the Eiffel Tower, stared politely at countless paintings, been leered at and kissed at by so many men, stood in patches of harlequin light in a dozen chilly naves, bought a scarf she couldn’t afford, surreptitiously stroked the neatly stacked skulls in the catacombs, listened to jazz, gotten drunk on wine, ridden on the back of scooters, done everything she thinks she should in Paris, and still there has always been the feeling of something still to come, a purpose as yet unmet, an expectation.


In particular, I loved Shipstead’s scene in the Opéra Garnier, which captures the beautiful excess better than a camera ever could:

The houselights are down, but the glow from the stage picks out a profusion of gilded plasterwork: serene deities, trumpeting angels, lyres, garlands, flowers, oak leaves, masks, Corinthian columns, all deeply shadowed, piling up around the proscenium and among the boxes like the walls of a craggy old cave, climbing to Chagall’s painted round ceiling of naked angels and volumptuous ballerinas and goats and chickens and lovers and blue Eiffel Tower and red-splotched rendering of the Palais itself. From the center of thing hangs the great sleeping chandelier: an enormous gold and glass thistle hung upside down to dry, darkly gleaming.


Speaking of cameras, here are some of my own photographs of the Opéra Garnier, which aren’t the best quality, but you get the idea:

photo 1 photo 2 photo 3 photo 4 photo 5

So whether you read Astonish Me for the ballet, the love story or the lovely Paris passages, I think you’ll be delighted.

If you’re in Paris or plan to visit, don’t miss a visit to Palais Garnier, whether it’s for a ballet performance or a public tour. Click here to go to their website, which has more beautiful photographs, a lot of history and information about your visit.

Suggested reading:  Check out my previous post The Painted Girls: Degas and the Dancers featuring Cathy Marie Buchanan’s book The Painted Girls, historical fiction about young French ballet dancers set in Belle Epoque Paris.


Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead: Highly Recommended.