Jean is a dancer in the corps. She knows she’ll never be good enough for principle, but she has her career ahead of her. She was the one who helped the great Arslan Rusakov defect from Russia, she loves him but she’s not good enough for him. Not a good enough dancer. There has always been one man who loved her, a man who will wait for her. Is it time to leave the ballet behind? And is she capable of turning her back on her life’s obsession?
Astonish Me is a tale of obsession and sacrifice told through evocative and expressive writing. The narrative flits back and forth between Joan’s time as a dancer and her time as a mother. But does she ever really leave her obsession behind? She teaches ballet and moulds a future generation of dancers. Is she just living her life through them?
At times it feels like it’s been written by a dancer. There is a lot of focus on the body, as a machine, a tool to dance with, separate from emotional needs. The characters feel quite distanced from reality, ballet and their bodies being the most important thing of all. It’s a tough choice for female dancers who wish for children but do not want to give up their passion. For these dancers, ballet is a passion, their life, and to give it up is to give up breathing. Although Joan appears to voluntarily step back, as the story unfolds, you see just how much hold ballet really has on her.
Perhaps this means the books will not appeal to those with no interest in ballet. The selfish drive of the characters is only put into context through the extremes of their world. The part about Russian defectors was an interesting piece of social history. They were driven so hard to be the best in the world but they wanted their freedom and they had to be smuggled out to the free world, given homes amongst the ballet companies.
The more I think about it, the more I like the book, although it feels very intense at the time. Harry’s path appears to be following his father’s and then veers off. It touches on the prejudice against male dancers but also on the hardships of all dancers going through puberty and not knowing if their bodies will be kind to them.
Elaine is held up as an example of what could have been for Joan. Although it is inferred that Elaine is the better dancer, had more potential, but she stays in the world whilst Joan is apart. Her story isn’t without sadness though but I liked her, more than the other characters. I felt she was more personable that a lot of the people in the industry would really be. The other characters are probably the norm.
Astonish Me is published by Blue Door, an imprint of HarperCollins, and is available now in hardback and ebook editions. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.