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Book Club: Astonish Me

Book Club: Astonish Me

Loved Seating Arrangements? Our Waterstones Book Club choice is Astonish Me, the gripping new novel by Maggie Shipstead that spans decades and crosses continents; resulting in a stunning examination of love and sacrifice.

Posted on 12th April 2015 by Rob Chilver

Prize-winning author Maggie Shipstead follows up Seating Arrangements with her new novel Astonish Me. Taking us on a whirlwind tour across two continents via Studio 54 and a ballet performance, Joan, the novel's protagonist, is faced with an important life decision as her ballet career is coming to an unplanned end following an equally unplanned pregnancy. Shipstread's second book is guaranteed to astonish.

Find out why Maggie Shipstead wants to be alone when writing before reading the opening pages of Astonish Me below.

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September 1977-New York City

In  the  wings,   behind   a  metal   rack  crowded   with bundles  of cable and  silk flower garlands and the stringless  lutes from act I, two  black dachshunds  lie in a basket. They are awake  but  motionless, their  small, uneasy eyes fixed on the dancers who come smiling and leaping  offstage and give themselves over to violent exhaustion, standing stooped, hands  on  hips,  heaving like racehorses. The dancers grab  fistfuls  of tissues from boxes  mounted to  the  light  rigs with gaffing tape  and swab  their  faces and  chests.  Sweat  patters on  the  floor. A stagehand pushes  an ammonia-smelling mop  around. The pas  de  deux   begins. Two  Russian  stars   are  out alone  in  the  light, both  defectors. The  surface of the stage  has  the  dull  shine of  black  ice; rosin  dusts  it like snow.

Ordinarily, members  of the corps do not dare acknow­ledge the dogs,  but Joan Joyce crouches and strokes  their long  backs.  She  fingers  their  velvety  ears and smooth little skulls. The creatures  shrink away into  their  basket, but  she persists. In  the shadows,  other  corps  girls stand waiting in a clump,  tutus overlapping like a mat  of stiff lavender  blossoms.

"What are  you  doing?"  one  of  them  whispers.  "You can't  touch  those."

Joan's   roommate Elaine Costas,  a  soloist,  is  sitting against   the  wall  and stretching. Her  pointe shoes are pressed together at the soles like hands  in prayer, her face bent  to  their  arches.  Her  costume is yellow,  the  bodice embroidered  with   gold.  "If Ludmilla were  going   to murder Joan," she says, looking up, "she would  have done it already."

One  of  the  dogs  sets  a  paw  against  Joan's  wrist  and braces away, his hard ebony  nails  digging into  her skin. She  kisses  at  him.   He  lifts   his  ears,  then   remembers himself  and  flattens   them,   recanting his  interest. Joan has never danced  as well as tonight. She is of the  corps but  also entirely  herself,  both  part and  whole. The tiny ball of cells clinging to  her  uterine wall  is a secret,  but she feels as translucent and  luminous as a firefly.

Arslan  Rusakov  and  Ludmilla Yedemskaya  appear  in the  bright  channel between  the  black  stage  drapes  and stop,  glazed  with  sweat  and  white  light. He  turns her waist  between  his palms,  his face set in an  ardent  mask. Love  in a ballet  is something that   does  not  exist  and then suddenly does, its beginning marked by pantomime, faces  fixed  in  rapture, a  dance. After,   when   they   are hidden in  the  wings  or  behind  the  curtain, the  dancers will grimace like goblins, letting the  pain  show.

At  home  in  their  apartment, Elaine  sometimes  does an unkind imitation of Arslan's love face, dancing pomp­ously and  then  turning to answer  herself  with  a parody of Ludmilla's smile: bared teeth  beneath  flinty  eyes. Joan laughs and asks for more,  but the mockery stings. Arslan had  been  her lover.  She  had  been  the one  to  help  him defect.

He  and  Ludmilla had  been  a couple  when  they  were both  in  the  Kirov,  and now  they  are  getting married. They had announced their engagement after a perfor­ mance  of Swan Lake with champagne for the whole company. Ludmilla's head  was  swathed   in  a  crown  of white   feathers. Joan  and   Arslan  were   done    before Ludmilla arrived,  but still the tiny yellow-haired Russian provokes Joan's sense of having  been taunted and  robbed, deprived.

Applause, and  Ludmilla sweeps  into  the  wings.  The music  for  Arslan's variation begins.  Joan  keeps  petting the  dogs,  but  the  animals crane  their  long  necks for  a glimpse  of their  mistress.  "They are not  nice," Ludmilla says after   a moment, her  accent  flat  and  heavy  like  a stone in  the  back of her throat. "You should  not  touch." Before  curtain, the  dachshunds had  moped   around Ludmilla's feet while  she warmed up, narrowly  avoiding being kicked. She never seems to pay them  any attention, but she brings them  to every class, every rehearsal, every fitting,  every  performance, every  gala. They were  a gift from Arslan   when  she  arrived  in  New  York  after  her defection, replacements for dachshunds left  behind  in Leningrad. Their bony, penitent faces are always turned, like so many others,  toward  her. They would  never think of barking, not even when cymbals  crash or when  stage­hands  pump out  chilly  clouds  of fog from  a machine to make an enchanted haze or suggest  the surface of a lake.

"They seem sweet,"  Joan  says.

Ludmilla, dabbing her cheeks  with  a tissue,  gazes  at her with  amused  malevolence. "They  bite."

"I don't  think so."

"They are  my dogs,  not  your  dogs,  but  if you  want get  bite, suit  yourself."

Suit yourse{fis something Arslan says because it is some­thing Joan  says. She taught  him, and  now  he has taught Ludmilla. Joan  gives the  dachshunds a  final rub-one bares a set of tiny, sharp  ivory teeth  at her, as dainty and menacing  as his mistress-and stands  up. Ludmilla turns away to watch  Arslan   pirouette  at center  stage  (he  is a princel it is his wedding day!) as the music accelerates and sweat flies from  his hair.  Arslan  is racing  the  conductor, trying  to squeeze  in more  turns. When he  is done,  the audience will let loose the huge, docile roar of amazement they  always do.  The  ovation  is a given,  but  he will still earn  it. He  is extraordinary. The  audience  loves him  for being extraordinary and  also for having been  born  to the enemy, for coming to dance  for them  instead.

The  end  of the  music. His  last turn squeaks  around a  beat  late.  The roar explodes   from   the   belly  of  the theater,  blasts out to the  back of the  house. Arslan  bows, bows  again,  gives a modest  flick  of his  head.  Ludmilla draws herself up, raises her arms over her head, and steps briskly  out  from   the  wings. Her  vananon  begins,   but Joan  does  not  watch.

Joan  has  known  plenty  of pregnant dancers   but only a handful who  stayed  that  way and  only  one  who  then returned to the company-a principal  famous  enough  to be forgiven for the  months of leave, her slow battle  back into shape.  For  most of the  women  Joan  knows,  a child is  unthinkable. The   body  has  already   been offered  up; the  body is spoken  for. She is only  eight weeks or so and still  not showing,   but  she  is surprised   she  hasn't   been found  out. The  dancers keep close surveillance on one another,  report  suspicions  of weakness. Elaine  might have guessed, Joan  thinks, but it's not her nature  to interrogate or  tattle.  Usually they  share  a  banana in  the  morning before class, but Joan,  both  nauseated and famished, has a new compulsion to toast frozen waffles and spread them with peanut  butter. Elaine, eating her banana  half, watches the  passage of the  sticky knife,  says nothing. Mercifully, magically, Joan's nausea tends to dissipate during morning class. She hasn't  betrayed  herself  by puking.

In July, after the blackout, she had faked a slight sprain and   gone   to  visit  Jacob in   Chicago.  He   is  not   her boyfriend. In high school, they  had explained themselves as  best  friends,   proud   of  their  status   as  a  bonded   but platonic pair, a relationship that seemed  modern and cosmopolitan to them,  worlds away from  the short-lived, sweaty-palmed hormonal couplings happening around them. But Joan  had  known Jacob  wanted  more.  For  so long, he was too timid-and too proud-to try anything He had kissed her once, just before he left for college. It had been the kind of kiss that asks for something enormous.  When  she  pushed  him away, he was angry, and she had turned  his anger around  and punished  him with  it  and  hidden   behind  it. Then   he left, and  they wrote letters, which  seemed safer.

She supposes Jacob still is her best friend, although during the time she was with Arslan and then recovering from being with Arslan, she had allowed their friendship to lie fallow. She prefers to think  that  way her  bond with  Jacob  was  resting, regathering  itself instead of admitting  she  had  neglected   him.  But  Jacob  is the forgiving type, the comforting type,  the patient  type.

In  Chicago,  at first he had  affected  a breezy version of their  high school intimacy, taking  her to a loud and smelly bar, alluding  to the latest woman  he was seeing, letting her buy the drinks.  "What's  the latest with Arslan the Terrible?" he'd asked in a brotherly tone. But shifting the  momentum  had  not  been  difficult.  She'd touched his arm as they drank, leaned into him, bumped against his side as they walked to his apartment, and, over a nightcap, told him she'd  missed him. "I've been consid­ ering," she said. "Like you asked me to."

"Yeah?" he said,  guarded.  They  were sitting  on  his sway-backed sofa.

"I think  maybe."

"Maybe what?"

She was too afraid to look at him. "Just, you know, maybe."

She had anticipated a long nocturnal conversation full of hesitation, negotiation, reminiscence, and  uncertainty. But  instead he  had  taken  off  his  glasses  and set  them carefully on  his  junky  coffee  table  and  then  lunged   at her the way he had  before, when  they were teenagers. In spite of herself, she laughed.

"What?" he said.

"Nothing," she said. "Sorry.  Just  nerves."

There had  been no discussion  of  pills or condoms. She had the sense he was afraid  to raise any  impediment to what  was finally  about  to happen.

Ludmilla is turning rapidly  across the diagonal as the music  builds  toward  the end  of her variation. The  corps girls in their  lavender  tutus  shake  out  their  legs, prepare. Joan  can  feel how impatient the  audience is to applaud. Their hands are held apart like straining magnets. Ludmilla wraps  the  tension around herself  as she turns.

When Joan   begins  to show,  when  she  is found out, she  knows  she  will feel regret,  sorrow,  panic but now the sensation of purpose soars  over her like the hunting bugle from  act  2. She is surprised by the  strength of it, the  way it unfurls.

Applause. She  falls  into  line  with  the  others   and  is pulled  out  into  the  light.

THE  SUMMER HAS been long, hot, chaotic. Civilization seems fragile.  When the lights  went  out  for  a night  in July, thousands of people looted  and  marauded and  set fires. David  Berkowitz  has been arrested, but the specter of random death  lingers.  Elaine  knows  all  the  bouncers in the city and  has enticed Joan  to nightclubs and  parties where   glittering  people   loom   out   of  the   smoke   and flashing  lights,  sometimes in costume-Cleopatras, unicorns, Dionysuses-slip-sliding  and  pivoting, not caring  how they  dance, just  that  they  are dancing. Hot spots. Joan  thinks of thermal vents, volcanic  fissures. She dislikes crowds and jostling,  but she has seen the smiling cokehead crescent moon at Studio  54 and peeked  through the doorway to  the orgy  room  at Plato's Retreat and  been guided   by  more  than one  guy  who  knows  a guy  who knows a guy through downtown dead lands and  up secret stairs  to illegal  parties  in  cavernous  lofts. Elaine  doesn't look  like  a  ballerina   when  she's  out-she turns slinky and   loose on   the  dance  floor,  matching the  steps  of whatever  man  materializes in  front of her-but Joan  is too precise, too  reserved, too square. She has tried  drugs, but they  leave her clinging to  a  banquette or  crouched in  a bathroom stall, immobilized by anxiety.

Elaine ingests a steady but restricted diet of cocaine without apparent consequence. The  key, she  has said  to Joan,  is control. Control is the key to everything. Elaine has a strict  limit  for coke, a regimen. She will do a bump before a performance for confidence and  maybe  another at  intermission if she's dragging. She  will  do  a line  or two-never more  than   two-once or  twice  (no more than  twice) a week when  she's out, and she will substitute coke  for lunch when  she  wants  to drop  a few  pounds.

She's not  greedy  about  the  high,  doesn't  want  it  all the time,  just wants  the boost  of it. If she's short  on  money and doesn't  have a man  who's supplying her, she will cut it  out  entirely.  No   problem. That  way  it  is a  routine, something already managed, and  the drug  will not inter­fere with  what's  important, which  is dance.

Elaine always  has  men   but  is  never  in  love,  except with  Mr.  K,  the  artistic director, who  also  believes  in regimens. Their love can  be managed, must  be managed. Joan  had  been surprised by how  kind  Elaine  was during the tumultuous futility of  her affair with  Arslan, how patiently she listened as Joan plotted with a conspirator's intensity the hypothetical events, realizations, and decla­rations that,  if  they   occurred, would  ensure Arslan's lasting devotion. Arslan.  A  man   who  had  never  been faithful  to  anyone  and   did   not   seem   to   love  her. Maybe  Elaine enjoyed  the  proximity to  unmanageable love,  the whoosh of  it  brushing  by,  the  spectacle of someone else losing control. She must  crave those  things or else she wouldn't  have such  an  appetite for nightlife. Joan wonders what  she will  think-possibly  already thinks-about the pregnancy.

The  sweepers are moving through the theater, clacking their  dustpans. The audience has gushed, marveling, out onto   Columbus  Avenue.  Arslan  and   Ludmilla  have slipped away through the stage door. Tomorrow will start with company class. Almost  every  day starts  with  class, and  those  that  don't  are shapeless and  problematic. Only what's  left  of   the  night  separates Joan   from more stretching, more  dancing, from  the  genteel  swoop  and clatter  of the  piano,  everyone  at  the  barres while  Mr. K patrols, sweater  tied over his shoulders, saying, And open, and two, and again, lengthen your leg and UP, stay, stay, stay. No, girl. Like this.

Joan  should  sleep while  she can,  but she isn't  ready to go back to the apartment. She sleeps in a twin  bed against the  far wall  of their  small  living room.  For  privacy, she tacked  a sheet  of printed  Indian cotton high  to  the  wall and draped it down  over her bed to form  a kind  of tent, but the sheet only makes the room seem squalid and ramshackle. Which it  is,  in  a  way. The apartment is a crash pad, somewhere to go  between  classes and  perfor­mances,  between men, somewhere to  recover  from  the hot spots.

She finds  Elaine  in  the  soloists' dressing room.

"Do  you  want  to  go  out?"  she  asks,  peering around the door.

Elaine, wrapped in  a  towel,  is  brushing her  smooth black curtain of hair and studying herself  in the  mirror of the  long  makeup table. A plastic  cup  of wine sits on the counter, surrounded by colorful tiles of eye shadow, rounds of  blush,  tubs  of pancake, fake  lashes  fanned out  in   their   plastic   cases.  The wine   helps   her come down  at   night.  No   more   than  two   glasses.   "Sure. Where?"

"I don't  know. I thought you'd know." Elaine  waves her in.  "Come in  already."

A  few  other  soloists  are still  around. One  is wiping her  eyelids  with   a cotton ball.  Another stands  naked, blow-drying her hair. Another lifts her dance bag to her shoulder  and  walks  out,  giving Joan's shoulder a friendly pat  as she  passes. A wardrobe assistant moves  through the room,  collecting tights  to be washed, straightening costumes on  hangers, putting  the  hangers  on  a  rolling rack. Joan sidles in  and  perches  on  the  table.

"Do  you  have anything else to wear?"  Elaine  asks.

Joan  looks  down  at  her  jeans  and  platform sandals, her striped tank top. "No."

"We  should  go  home  first,  then."

"No,  Elaine,   please,  I'll  lose  momentum. It doesn't have  to  be a  big  thing. Just  a drink out  somewhere.  I don't  want  to go  right  home."

"Well.  Okay."  Elaine   pulls  her  dance   bag  out  from under the table and  paws through it. She thrusts a bundle of  purple   cloth  at  Joan. "Here."  Joan   unfurls a loose, filmy  blouse with  a low neck. She strips off her tank  top and  pulls  the blouse on  over her  bare  chest.

"Can  you see my nipples though this?" As soon  as she has spoken,  she  regrets drawing attention to  her  breasts, which  are swollen.

Elaine's  eyes are sharp  and  green and set close against

her long,  narrow nose,  pinning it  in  place.  No  change registers in them. "Not really," she says. She turns to the naked dancer with the blow dryer. "Yvette, do you have anything I could  borrow  to wear  out?"

"I have a little  dress,"  the  girl says.

It is a very little  dress, and  yellow, but it suits  Elaine, as most  things do.  "Do  you  want  to come  to a party?" Elaine  asks Yvette.

The  girl, who is zipping  up another little  dress,  blinks as slowly  and  mechanically as a  doll  as  she  considers. "Yes," she says. "That would  be very nice." Joan  is disap­pointed   even  though she  likes  Yvette,  finds her  dippy and  harmless. Yvette  was  born   in  France  and   retains traces  of  an accent  and  of continental diffidence even though she  has  lived  in  New  York since  kindergarten. But  Joan is  becoming nostalgic   in  anticipation of  the end of  her  ballet  life  and   had imagined  the  night   as belonging to her and  Elaine, a memory just for  the  two of them,  although Elaine  will  probably  vanish  as soon as  they  get  wherever they're   going.  She  has  a  way  of vaporizing at  parties,   being  immediately absorbed   into the  revelry.

Outside, the three  of them  find a taxi  heading down­town.   The   city's  summer breath  rushes   forcefully in through the windows, smelling of garbage  and gasoline, and  they  recline  in  the  warm  air, saying  little,  worn  out but  also energized, their  blood  circulating  smoothly, as though the  performance had swept   their  veins  clean. Joan  is already  too  hot  in  her  jeans and  borrowed top. She  envies  the  others' little  dresses  even  though  their bare legs must  be sticking to  the grimy  vinyl seat cover. The   driver   peeks  in  the  mirror, the  silver rim  of  his glasses  catching red  and  green  sparks  from  the  traffic lights.  He handles the  wheel  gently, cautiously, with  his plump  hands. Most  cabbies  flirt  a bit when  the  dancers are out together,  make  some suggestion about  where they should  go,  comment on  how  nice  they  all  look,  but  he doesn't.  He takes  his glances  in the mirror,  like someone peeping  over  a fence.

The  party is near Astor Place, in a brick building with peeling  yellow paint  and  a fire escape  made  out  of rust. It  is  not   Elaine's   usual  sort  of  glitzy,  careening, pill­ popping party but something else, just a party,  a humid crowd of languid people gathered in a smoky  apartment. Edith Piaf  warbles  from  the  stereo. Joan  didn't need  to have  worried   about   Yvette. The girl  takes  the  French music as a sign of welcome  and  sets  off for  the  table  of bottles  in  the  far  corner,  greeting strangers   as she goes with  little  sideways  bonjours.

"Drink?" Elaine  says.

"No,  I need  to drop  weight."

Elaine  takes a pack of cigarettes from  her purse. "Want one?"

"No,  thanks."

A knowingness hovers around Elaine's pursed  lips and raised  eyebrows  as she lights  up.

About Yvette, Joan  says, "I don't  know why  she still does this  French  act."

"She's  just French  enough to  pretend  to  be French.  I don't  know-look at  her. It works.  I  should   think  it's obnoxious, but I don't."

They look together through the  people. At the make­ shift   bar,  Yvette  is  smiling up  at  a  tall  and   gorgeous black   man.   She  cuts   her  eyes  to  the  side, murmurs something out  the  corner  of  her  mouth, making  him lean  in.

"I'm going to get a drink," Elaine  says. "And hopefully a very  tall  man."

Joan grabs her arm.  "No, don't. I'll  never   see  you again.  You'll disappear."

"This place is tiny."

"You have a way."

"Come with,  then.  Five steps  that  way. We can  rope ourselves  together first  if you  want."

Joan  follows.  "How did  you  know  about  this  party?" "I went  home  with  the  guy whose  apartment this  is a couple  months ago, and  then  I ran  into  him  the other night.  He  said  he was  having  a thing. I wasn't  going  to come,  but  then   you  ... he's-where is  he?-oh, he's that  one." She  points  through the  crowd  to a pale head with full pale lips and small pale eyes. The  head, partially obscured  by a woman's red curls,  nods  in a courtly way, smiles slyly. It is the smile  of a man  who knows  women like to  think they  are  being  amusing.

"He's  handsome."

"Isn't  he? I thought so." Elaine  pours  bourbon into  a mug  and  offers  the  bottle.  "You sure?"

Joan  shakes  her  head.  "All your  men  are handsome." "I  would  not  call  this guy one  of my  men.  I would call  him  ... Christopher? I'm  not  sure.  I  should  have asked  when   I  saw  him  again,   but  it  seemed  impolite. Maybe  we can delicately  find  out  from  someone here."

"Except  Mr.  K. He's  not  handsome."

"Mr.  K doesn't  have to  be handsome. He's  a genius. You should  know.  Arslan  doesn't   have to  be handsome either."

''Arslan  is handsome."

"No,  Arslan's  sexy. Anyway,  he's not  a genius  the  way

Mr. K is. Mr. K creates. Mr. K has changed  everything." "Please, tell me  more about  your  boyfriend, your  old, gay boyfriend."

Elaine  taps  her  cigarette into  an  empty wine  bottle, unflappable. "Labels  are  a waste  of time.  So  is  posses­siveness. I know  what  he is."

"God," Joan  says  on  a long  breath. "I  can't   believe how  liberating  it  is  not   to care  anymore. I  watched Arslan  walk  out  the  stage  door  with  Ludmilla tonight and  didn't want  to  kill  myself.  Finally.  I'm  cured. It's heaven."

"Hmm." Elaine  drags  on  her  cigarette, drops  it  into the  wine  bottle.  "I  think you're  pregnant."

Joan  smiles  at  the  linoleum floor. She  draws  her  toe across it in  an  arc. "Because  of the  waffles?"

"Lately  you  seem  like you're  saying  good-bye  all  the time,  like you're about  to go catch  a bus." Elaine  studies her. "Have you  told Jacob?"

"No."Joan watches the tentatively identified Christopher as he walks around with a jug of red wine, filling people's glasses and  mugs.  This is the  first  time  she  has spoken about  the  pregnancy except  with  the  doctor   who  gave her  prenatal vitamins, and  Jacob's  name  is loaded  with a heavy, sudden future.

In  high  school, she  had  decided  her mild  sexual  curi­osity  about Jacob   was   nothing  more   than  a  generic offshoot  of her general  sexual curiosity. He was younger, which  was not sexy, and  wore little wire-rimmed  glasses, which  had seemed  to signify  something important then, and  he was transparently devoted to her, which  was not sexy, and  he was academically brilliant and  a little  inse­cure (not sexy, not sexy). Joan, however, had the mystique of ballet to trade  on, her tininess and  her suppleness,  the grace that  had  been drilled  into her  until she was physic­ally unable  to  be awkward. Lots  of boys wanted  to date her,  and dating them  was  simple,  while  dating Jacob would  not  have  been.

But when  they  were sitting side  by side at the  movies or watching TV on  the couch when  her mother was out, not  speaking and  not  looking at  each  other,  he would stay  so still  that  she sensed  he was  restraining  himself, wary of any movement that  would  betray what he wanted, and  some hidden  sensory organ in her  would rotate toward  him,  probing, considering.

"Did  you do  it on  purpose?"  Elaine  asks.

"Of  course  not."

"You can't  do this if it's only about  running away from Arslan."

Since she got pregnant, the cattle prod  jolt of Arslan's name  has worn  off,  become  only  a faint  zap,  two  weak wires  touched together. "It's  not. It's really  not.  I might be  running from   everything else,  but  I  have  to  go.  I have to find  something else. You'll make  it. I was never going  to."

"You did  it on  purpose." "I didn't!"

"It doesn't  matter. It's done. But you don't  have to ... you  could,  you  know,  just quit the company. Not  have a  baby. Get  a job. Do  something  else."

Solemnly, Joan shakes her head. "I couldn't just decide to stop. I thought about  it. But I'm too much  of a coward.

I can't stay in the city if I'm  not dancing, and I wouldn't know  where  else to go. Or what  to do,  generally."

"So you're counting on Jacob  to figure all that  out  for you. This all seems really elaborate, Joan. I feel sorry  for Jacob. He's  walking around Chicago right  now with  no idea he's a marked man."

"He's getting what  he wants."

"Oh  yeah?"  Elaine  takes  another cigarette from  her pack. "Well  then.  You're a Good  Samaritan."

"Give me a cigarette, please." "You shouldn't smoke."

"I know. This one and  then  I'm quitting. I'm quitting everything. Everything is going  to  be different."

"Inevitably."

Finding nothing else to say, they  pretend  to  be inter­ested  in  the  party that  drifts around them  as lightly  as fog. Joan  makes  eye contact  with  a series of men. They are the kind  of men  who look  over shoulders while they chatter, searching for the people they will chatter at next.

The crowd shifts, revealing the host's pale head inclined attentively  toward  the fast-moving  mouth  of  a  blond woman  in a paisley jumpsuit.

Joan  says, "Will  you introduce  me to Christopher?"

JOAN  LIES  AWAKE. Beside her, the  man  sleeps. Even his snores are polite and well formed. His name is Tom, not  Christopher. Probably  some other Christopher  had swum through Elaine's nocturnal world, crossing bubble trails with this handsome Tom, an assistant professor of Old and Middle English at NYU. His bed is surprisingly clean and nice smelling for a single man with bohemian tastes. Joan wonders if he will be the second-to-last  man she ever sleeps with.

The  yellow night  drops  a window-square  on the pale sheet. Tom makes a rough sound  in his sleep that might be Old or Middle English. The cells continue to multiply. Joan  rests her  palm  against  her  belly, trying  to divine the exact spot where life has  been  planted  like a tulip bulb. Usually when she is in bed with  a strange man­ there  haven't  been  so  many-she has  trouble  sleeping because she is preoccupied by the nearness of the unfa­miliar  body  that   has   been recently and intimately explored and  is now  remote, locked away in sleep. But Tom holds no curiosity for her. She strokes her own skin, wonders what time it is. His wrist with his watch is under his pillow, and she doesn't see a clock in the room. When the sun rises she will make her way home and then, later, to  class.  She wonders   how many   more  times  she  will go to class. When she stops  dancing, class will continue on  without  her,  every  day  except  Sunday,  part   of  the earth's rotation. The piano  will swoop  and  clatter,  and Mr. K will say No, girl, like this to dancers who  are not her. Her  empty spot  at  the  barre  will  heal  over at once. But she wants  a few more days, a week or two. She wants the cells to grow  in time  to  the piano,  to  Mr.  K's clap­ping  hands,  his  one papa  pa, two papa pa, and  UP pa papa,  to the  rhythm of her  battements. Until  now, even when surrounded by twenty women  dressed  just like her, moving  in  unison  with  her, she  has always been  lonely, but  the  cells  give  her  a feeling  of  companionship. For the  first time  she  can   remember, she  is  not  afraid   of failing,  and  the relief feels like joy.

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Astonish Me (Paperback)

Astonish Me (Paperback)

Maggie Shipstead




3 Reviews

From the prize-winning author of Seating Arrangements comes the masterful story of a young woman who abandons her dreams to start a new life. Spanning decades, crossing continents, Astonish Me is stunning examination of love and sacrifice.

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