Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

astonish me by maggie shipstead

Recently I read the novel Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. Full disclosure, I know Maggie. We both attended Mighty Summit in 2012. At the time, her first novel Seating Arrangements had come out a few months earlier. After her second novel, Astonish Me, came out recently, it prompted me to buy both of them and read them. Then I learned she was coming to Politics & Prose in DC (a famous little bookstore on my side of town) for a book reading so I wanted to attend, see her, and of course get my books signed. You can actually watch it here. I’ve only been to one book reading/signing that I can remember and I think I should consider going to more. I thought it was really interesting to get to know the author more intimately. At the very least, I’ll be watching some on the Politics & Prose website.


Maggie said a few things at the book signing that I thought were interesting:

She said Astonish Me started as a short story when she was at Stanford.

She’s interested in how people encounter their limitations and in this case (of ballet) their body.

Wrote it in 5 months.

Did research watching YouTube videos of the NYC ballet, the Royal ballet, and ballet documentaries.

She says she still handwrites when she get stuck.

When asked a book she recently read and loved she said Americana.

When forming characters she tells herself “try to work harder, try to think harder” to understand the character.

At the end of the reading, people could get up an ask a question, and a cute older women got up and just said that she had a comment. She was 83, used to be a ballet dancer, and just wanted to tell Maggie how much she loved the book. It was so cute, and moved Maggie to tears.


I just wanted to share a few parts of Astonish Me that I thought were interesting/well written:

Harry (the son, dancer) asks Jacob (his father): 

Harry — “How do you know if you’re in love?”

Jacob — “I think it’s different for different people, but the conventional wisdom is that when you’re around the person you’re in love with, you feel happy, more than happy—euphoric. And you want to be around that person all the time. You don’t notice the person’s faults. Some people say their hearts beat faster. They feel jittery. I think you know it when you feel it.”


After the family moved to a new house in California:

They believe they are owed sunlight, newness, and abundance. They have become Californians.


Joan thinking about how young girls wear fruity smelling lotions and remembers how Mr. K always gives his dancers a fragrance and tells them that this it the type of women they are:

Middle school girls have an insatiable enthusiasm for making themselves reek of imitation melon or gardenia or strawberry. Joan has prohibited her students from wearing anything scented to class—no sprays, no lotions— but still she catches them sneaking plastic bottles of purple and pink liquids out of their dance bags during breaks for a restorative spritz. They have strange ideas, these girls, of what it means to be a women. Mr. K, she sees now, was clever with his courtly little gifts of perfume. This is the kind of woman you are, he tells the dancers he chooses to elevate. This is how you should smell.


Harry takes Chloe to see Phantom of the Opera:

Her indiscriminate rapture in the face of so much excess—material and emotional—troubles Harry. More and more he has noticed girls reacting to movies and songs and pictures in magazine in ways that don’t make any sense. Girls always seem to be straining and crying for some invisible thing they recognize and want but that seems completely obscure to him. They seem to want to have something to want, as though wanting was an end in itself.


I never want to say too much to spoil it for anyone, especially about a newer book, but I really enjoyed Astonish Me and Seating Arrangements. I read both of them quickly. They are both perfect for poolside summer reading.

Coming up later this week I will be posting an interview with Maggie, but in the meantime order & read her books!