astonish me book coverReviewed by Carrie Ardoin

It’s been a very long time, probably since I was a little girl, since I read a book centered around the ballet. Even as an adult though, I still harbor a certain fascination for the art. I try as often as I can to at least see The Nutcracker at Christmas, and I’m only somewhat ashamed to say that on any given day you can find me doing sloppy pirouettes in my kitchen while I’m sweeping. So, I went into this ballet-centric novel with great expectations, especially after the great press it’s been getting. And I must say, I was not disappointed; the dance world and a dramatic family story are neatly rolled into one book.

The story is told in third person narration and the use of flashbacks while also moving forward through time. Our main character, Joan, is a ballerina in the corps (basically a backup dancer) who knows she doesn’t really have what it takes to ever be a prima ballerina, the star of the show. Still, this doesn’t stop her from falling hard for the Russian leading man, Arslan Rusakov. Arslan has recently defected to the US with Joan’s help, but he finds it impossible to stay focused and faithful when so many women are at his feet. Meanwhile, Joan’s best friend from home, Jacob, pines for her and clings tightly to the one night they had together. Joan leaves the ballet after becoming pregnant, and spends the next 20 years in suburban bliss with Jacob.

Joan’s son becomes a fantastic dancer, and has dreams of making it all his own. His infatuation for his hero, Arslan Rusakov, is only matched by his passion for the ballerina he grew up next door to, Chloe. As the lives of all these characters and more entwine, old passions and secrets from the past come to the forefront, changing them forever.

The star of the show here is absolutely the characterization. While my preference in a novel is usually for first person storytelling, there are certain books that use third person narration to its’ full extent, letting you hop into the minds of each character you encounter. In this book, you see yourself dancing with Joan, feeling her passion for it but having to grapple with the constant feelings of not being good enough. You step into Jacob’s shoes, wondering if your wife truly loves you or if you were just a convenient substitute for her when she lost her Russian paramour. Going into each person’s thoughts and feelings was a journey, and I learned surprising things about characters I at first hated.

Another thing that was pleasant about Astonish Me was how it balanced the world of ballet with the drama that the characters were going through. There are plenty of dance scenes and ballet jargon, but even those not familiar with the art at all won’t find themselves too lost. For most of the characters, ballet is their very lifeblood, and it shows in everything they do.

I sometimes hate when novels use flashbacks as a plot device, but for this instance it worked nicely. You not only go back, you go back and see through the eyes of different characters. I enjoyed seeing Joan learn she was pregnant then watching her son grow up. I loved watching him become his own man and how he bonded with each of his parents in very different ways. The relationships, both familiar and romantic, are all well developed and will grab at your heart with the way they play out.

The only problem I had with this novel was the twist at the end. I’m not even sure if I’d call it a twist, but I will say it’s nothing I had thought about prior to seeing it come out and happen. I’m not entirely certain if I liked it or not. In some ways, and for some characters, it changed everything, but in others it wasn’t all that important. I think ultimately I would have prefered the book without it.

Astonish Me is a dazzling novel that will appeal to ballet lovers, romance fans, those who like family drama, and many more readers with its’ ability to defy genre.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Carrie runs the blog Sweet Southern Home, and is a stay at home wife and mom to one little boy. When she’s not reading, she’s usually watching Netflix with her husband, playing outside with her son, or baking. Her family would describe her as sometimes annoyingly sarcastic, but mostly lovable. 

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Random House. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.