When Maggie Shipstead’s debut, Seating Arrangements, was released in 2012, nearly every review marveled at the fact that she was only 28 years old. How could someone that young be so wise, so perceptive, so skilled at capturing the rites and rituals of WASP-dom that her writing evoked modern literature’s holiest Johns, Updike and Cheever?
Seating scalpeled the world of Ivy League privilege and whale-embroidered pants so well that it was easy to think that her precocity was just familiarity, but its follow-up dispels any idea that Shipstead is some kind of one-trick preppy. With Astonish Me, she plunges readers into a wildly different but equally arcane sect of skinny, high-strung humans: professional ballet dancers. In their world, ability, not breeding, determines the caste system — which doesn’t bode well for the romance of young corps member Joan Joyce and star principal Arslan Rusakov, the dazzling defector she helps smuggle into the U.S from pre-perestroika Russia. ”For two months, maybe three,” Shipstead writes, Joan ”was the main woman, the lead — the one on his arm at parties and events, famous as his accomplice, the brave girl in the news story — but she slipped bit by bit down into the ensemble cast.” The repercussions of their affair form the book’s big twist, though ”twist” is a generous word for a secret so obvious that it practically curtsies from center stage. In the end, Astonish Me is less about plot than the simple pleasure of reading such a naturally gifted novelist. Nearly every sentence here lands with a bull’s-eye thwock of emotional truth, and the inner lives of her characters feel as real and immediate as the shifting settings they inhabit: still-gritty mid-1970s Manhattan, shabbily elegant Paris, the sunbaked suburban sprawl of Southern California. A 30-year-old novelist, of course, can’t be considered a prodigy forever (even if time is kinder to her than it is to a 30-year-old ballerina). Shipstead’s youth may be a talking point, but her talent transcends it. She’s astonishing. A-