“Love in a ballet is something that does not exist and then suddenly does, its beginning marked by pantomime, faces fixed in rapture, a dance,” Maggie Shipstead explains in the opening act of her new novel, “Astonish Me” (Alfred A. Knopf, 257 pages, $25.95).
Watching from the wings as her former lover, Arslan Rusakov, takes the stage with his newly defected fiancée, Joan finds reason to celebrate what she knows will be her final performance. A secret pregnancy is about to tip her balance toward marriage and the suburbs, and her relief at leaving behind this rarefied world is palpable. “After, when they are hidden in the wings, or behind a curtain, the dancers will grimace like goblins, letting the pain show.”
Ballet may be infamous for its bodily punishments, but Shipstead finds even better material in the psychic costs of an art form fueled by creative rivalries and the relentless pursuit of the fleeting. “The ideal that lives behind the mirror makes teasing, flickering appearances but never quite shows itself, never solidifies into something that can be looked at and not just glimpsed,” the company’s coke-sniffing soloist Elaine muses as she edges near 30. “She might surprise it as she whips her head around, spotting during pirouettes, or catch it flitting through one hand or foot. But it never stays.” For the dancers who stay with it for life, “futility has become an accepted companion.”
A California subdivision in the 1980s is the setting for Joan’s second act, running a dance studio and raising a son with her high school boyfriend-turned husband Jacob. But her glamorous past as the getaway driver during Rusakov’s defection from the Soviet Union never fades from the family mythology, and soon begins to fascinate her son Harry, who grows to be a talented ballet dancer himself. Why did the mercurial Russian star choose a girl from the corps as his means of escape? How long can a person carry a secret before it stops mattering?
Shipstead’s sinewy prose here is well matched to her tightly wound characters, but fans of her often hilarious debut, “Seating Arrangements,” will have to rely on one of the story’s only carb-eating characters (a neighbor lady who allows herself to be groped on a Disney kiddie ride) for comic relief. Even so, by the time these two generations meet on stage in the final pas de quatre, Shipstead’s operatic denouement is just the right spin.
Laura Billings Coleman is a writer in St. Paul.