The Oprah Magazine

April 2014

 

Swan Song

BALLET AND LOVE TAKE CENTER STAGE IN A DAZZLING NEW NOVEL

 

JANUARY 1975, TORONTO. Joan Joyce, a lackluster member of the corps de ballet, sits in the getaway car, one hand poised to turn the key in the ignition, the other ready to switch on the headlights. After a fling in Paris with the world's most famous ballet dancer, Arslan Rusakov, she has been chosen—by Arslan himself—to help him defect from the Soviet Union. He exits through the stage door, bolts for the car in full costume, and climbs into the backseat, and Joan smuggles him across the border, to New York City. Arslan epitomizes the physicality and star power Joan will never have, which makes her desire for him all the more potent, and poignant. Their ensuing relationship changes her "sensation of being alive," but doesn't alter her career trajectory.

 

Maggie Shipstead's thrilling second book, Astonish Me (Knopf), is an homage to, and exposŽ of, the exhilarating, punishing world of ballet; it's also a searing rumination on insecurity, secrecy, and friendship. The story line takes its inspiration from a real-life pas de deux: Mikhail Baryshnikov's passionate affair with American socialite Christina Berlin.

 

Shipstead juxtaposes the rigorous discipline of ballet with the recklessness of sexual desire. After becoming pregnant, Joan leaves New York, marries her childhood admirer, and moves to California, where she teaches dance. One of her most promising students is her young son, Harry, and as the years pass, his talent becomes a daily reminder of Joan's former life, ultimately forcing her to confront the decisions she's made and reckon with all she's left behind. 

 

Though not a dancer herself, Shipstead nails the details of being perpetually en pointe: the adrenaline rush after a performance, the intimate atmosphere of the dressing room, the nagging feelings of inadequacy, the erotically charged and emotionally cruel competitiveness, and the inability to shake perfectionism long after retirement. Like a brilliant choreographer, she has master-minded a breathtaking work of art.

 

-SOPHIE FLACK